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Helping the New Kids on the Block Working With New Board Members

 Though often responsible for millions of dollars in property and charged with  the oversight of complex building functions, few co-op/condo board members are  real estate professionals. Board members are resident volunteers who come from  many walks of life and various professional backgrounds—most of which don’t include a lot of experience running a multifamily building.  

 The learning curve for a new board member can be steep, especially if that board  member is not dedicated to acquainting himself with a building’s affairs. Until their on-the-job experience catches up with their duties, new  board members often will rely heavily on more experienced fellow board members  for direction. Their main guide is usually the property manager.  

 Property managers are busy with the duties of looking after the buildings they  manage, but they recognize the importance of helping new board members become  effective decision-makers for their communities. Depending upon the property  manager or the management company, assisting new board members might mean  having them familiarize themselves with certain documents related to the  community, or recommending that they join organizations meant to facilitate  property management.  

 In whatever way a property manager chooses to approach a new board member  educational process, he or she must be met halfway by the new board member. The  new member must take seriously their responsibility as part of the board, and  he or she must do the work needed to make wise decisions. Barring such  dedication, all of the pointers, tips and suggestions provided by a property  manager won’t automatically transform a new board member into a good board member.  

 Questions & Answers

 One of the first questions a new board member usually asks a property manager is  what his or her responsibilities are. The property manager helps the board  member to understand the scope of his or her role on the board by acquainting  the new board member with the duties as defined in the community’s bylaws, says Irwin H. Cohen, president of A. Michael Tyler Realty Corporation  in Manhattan. The property manager also provides each new board member with a  list of shareholder/owners and their contact information, copies of the  building’s bylaws, and a copy of the proprietary lease or the condominium declaration of  covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&R).  

 Many property management firms also identify organizations that the new board  member might want to join to learn more about managing a community. The New  York Association of Realty Managers (NYARM), the Federation of Housing  Cooperatives and Condominiums (FNYHC), the Council of New York Cooperatives and  Condominiums (CNYC) and other groups can be helpful in educating new board  members.  

 If a new board member is appointed to an office on the board, such as treasurer,  the time it takes for the member to learn their job could be greater than that  of the typical new board member. In such cases, the property management team  will explore with the new member his or her duties as treasurer, or secretary,  or whatever the new office, Cohen says. Some of the appointed positions on a  board require more expertise and a greater time commitment than others.  

 But even new members who don’t hold offices on the board need to do their homework to be prepared to govern  their communities. To assist, property managers often provide new board members  with copies of board meeting minutes for the previous six months or so, says  Cohen. Some management companies go as far as a year back.  

 According to Cohen, new board members are informed by property managers of  emergency procedures for the building or community, and they also are provided  with resource materials on contractors that are working on the building or that  regularly service the building or community. Property managers try to work with  new board members to train them in the duties of their elected positions. “We work with them and try to bring them up to speed,” he says.  

 Another way new boards can become more familiar with how their management  company operates is to go straight to the source. “By visiting the property management company’s departments that service the property, new board members get the whole picture  of what the management company provides for the building, and how it does so,” says Alvin Wasserman, a director of Fairfield Property Services in Manhattan.  

 As part of a new board member’s education process, Fairfield Property Services personnel invite them into the  company’s office for a tour. New board members see the accounts payable and accounts  receivable departments, as well as the purchasing department, sales, the  mortgage arm of the company, and its insurance sector.  

 In addition to inviting new board members to the firm’s offices, Wasserman says his staff helps new board members to understand the  information gathering process that is part of managing a building or community.  Board members are shown how files are maintained on each unit in a community—from sales to maintenance of the apartment. The idea is to show the board  members the work that’s being done for the building, as well as how that work is done.  

 “Your property manager is just the tip of the iceberg,” Wasserman says. “The property management firm is the iceberg.”  

 Some management companies take new board members on a walking tour of their own  properties, as well. “The point is to give them an orientation, and an appreciation of the work  involved in managing their property,” he says.  

 And sometimes that work is more intense and time-consuming than expected. “A lot of board members are busy,” Cohen says. “The hope is that the elected board members will be proactive.”  

 Building Blocks

 Not all board members take their duties as seriously as they should. That  disconnect between a board member’s duties and what he or she actually does as part of their volunteer job can be  the starting point of common problems faced by a board. All of the members of a  board must do their part to ensure that the board is working effectively,  because the failings of one board member can very quickly hurt the entire  group.  

 The secretary and treasurer are extremely important positions. If the people  chosen for these jobs don’t take them seriously, their neglect could be problematic for the entire board,  Cohen says.  

 “Minutes are a very important thing,” he continues. “If a new board member is appointed secretary and doesn’t make meetings or take the minutes at meetings, it will [adversely] affect the  whole board. Secretary and treasurer are extremely important positions on the  board.”  

 As it is with many of life’s pursuits, when it comes to being a good board member, showing up is half the  battle. But attendance at meetings is just part of what’s needed to be an effective board member, says Paul Brensilber, president of the  Manhattan-based management firm Jordan Cooper & Associates.  

 “Board members should show up monthly. To be effective, new board members also  need to read the board meeting minutes for the past six months,” Brensilber continues. “A lot of board members leave the heavy lifting to one or two people on the  board, but everyone should do his part.”  

 According to Cohen, a common problem among boards is the simple waning of  enthusiasm. “That initial enthusiasm often turns into disinterest, or indifference. That’s a major flaw, but another problem is lack of attendance by members,” Cohen says. Neglectful board members can waste meeting time having the property  manager apprise them of the evening’s issues, adds Cohen.  

 “The board member is also obligated to review the information presented before  making decisions. They have to do that due diligence,” Cohen says.  

 Part of a board member’s due diligence is requesting, and reviewing, materials that pertain to the  management of the community. New board members should request from the property  manager a copy of the building’s budget, and for a copy of the building’s latest financial statement. If a new board member finds an ongoing issue of  the board that he or she is unfamiliar with, they should ask the property  manager and the more experienced board members about the issue, Brensilber  says.  

 “Read the meeting minutes and see what progress has been made,” Brensilber says, adding that new board members shouldn’t simply follow the previous board’s lead on issues. “New board members should have goals they want to accomplish before their terms  expire.”  

 A common problem of board with new members is the tendency of them to not do the  work they need to in order to be a truly effective governing body. Sometimes,  because they are busy with their workday lives, or even sometimes due to  laziness, board members don’t perform the work they should to keep up with the board’s business.  

 “They become part of the system, deferring to prior board members’ decisions, rather than looking to make changes,” Brensilber says.  

 The property manager’s role in helping freshmen board members acclimate to their new positions is  about providing the new folks with continuity while the business of the board  continues. The role of the board is to set goals, and the management company  presents the solutions and implements them, Brensilber says.  

 If a building has a board that’s ineffective, with members who don’t do their appointed tasks, the result could be that an inordinate part of the  burden of overseeing the building falls into the hands of the property  management company. Because of ineffectiveness on the part of some building  boards, some management companies are doing more than their fair share of the  work.  

 “For many buildings, the management company has become like the operating  company, and the board just sits back. The management company works better if  the board is up to speed,” Brensilber says.  

 Engendering Involvement

 New board members who want to tackle their new duties should familiarize  themselves with all types of documents that they’ll be reviewing while on the board, including procedure manuals, purchase and  alteration applications, and sublet applications. While some of that  familiarity with a board’s paperwork comes from a board member regularly participating in the board’s work, some of that understanding comes to those who seek it.  

 “It’s a never-ending process, because a board’s needs are constantly changing. It’s an ever-changing process,” Cohen says.  

 Having more hands involved in the management of a community can make the work  progress more smoothly, property managers say. Smart boards will delegate  responsibilities, and get their fellow residents involved in the process. It  helps build consensus among residents, and it helps to bring continuity on the  board.  

 “Get as many people as you can get involved in subcommittees. This forms the  basis for the next generation of leadership,” Cohen says.   

 Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator and other publications.  

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