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  • Michael Shifrin

Owner Forums: Beginning of Board Meetings, End of Board Meetings or Not At All?

I am often asked by board members and property managers to attend open board meetings for condominium and community association clients. I enjoy attending open board meetings because they provide an opportunity to observe associations function. That is, they allow me to watch firsthand as my clients discuss and conduct board business in front of the owners. Even better, they allow me to observe how boards interact with owners and vice-versa. Usually I am asked to attend open board meetings because boards are nervous and anxious about the “owner forum” section of their meeting. Owner forum is the period of time dedicated by the Board for the sole purpose of providing unit owners and homeowners with an opportunity to ask questions and make comments. It has been known to drive fear in the hearts of board members, cause mouths to go dry and palms to become sweaty. This occurs because boards have the least amount of control during owner forum. Owners can – and often do – say whatever they want when given the opportunity. And their comments are not praise for the chocolate chip cookies Betty baked for the neighborhood social. More often their comments are cynical and critical in nature. Given the difficulties presented by owner forum, must boards include them in their meetings? After all, these are open BOARD MEETINGS called for the purpose of allowing THE BOARD to conduct board business. If owner forums must be included, when and how does a board get through them with dignity and without causing further damage to community and board morale?

Community association boards that are governed by the Common Interest Community Association Act (“CICAA”) have a legal obligation to reserve a portion of their open board meeting for comments by members pursuant to CICAA. Condominium association boards do not have the same legal obligation; however, with transparency being a fundamental cornerstone of association legislation, it remains sensible to have mandatory owner forum included in board meetings. Owners have an absolute – in this case legal - right to gather information about the community in which they live. Thankfully, the Illinois General Assembly armed boards with two critical mechanisms to exercise control over owner forums. The law gives boards ‘sole discretion’ to determine the (1) duration and (2) placement of the owner forum within the open meeting. This gives boards an opportunity to conduct a successful owner forum, but they must be thoughtful and strategic.

Determining the proper duration of an owner forum requires a little planning as it varies from association to association. One approach is for the board to consider the average number of owners that attend each open board meeting. Then approximate what portion of owners are likely to participate during owner forum. Multiply the number of owners the board estimates will participate by the number of minutes allotted to each owner. The total number will determine the proper forum duration amount. For example, if you believe thirty owners will attend the open board meeting and fifteen will participate the math will be as follows: (15 participants x 3 minutes = 45 minutes). If 45 minutes seems like too much time a board can allocate 2 minutes per owner thereby reducing the owner forum to 30 minutes total in the above example. Using this formula allows a board to set aside a reasonable amount of time to allow for owner participation.

While establishing the duration of owner forum is helpful, “controlling” the duration requires a separate procedure. Overseeing the duration of owner forum is only possible with proper enforcement techniques. I advise all clients to review the “housekeeping rules” for owner forum before it begins. The board president - or whichever board member is most comfortable with public speaking - should inform the membership of the total amount of time set aside by the board for owner forum and for individual participation as well. Members should be informed the board has a timer and will be using it during owner forum to ensure everyone has a chance to participate. These days everyone brings their cell phones to open board meetings, all of which have built in timers. It is advisable to start the timer on one cell phone to keep track of the overall duration of the owner forum. Another cell phone timer may be used to track the individual time allotted to each owner. Finally, the timer should be set on the cell phone so that it beeps or plays a loud sound indicating when the allotted time has expired. This serves as a helpful reminder to the board, the owner and the entire membership that allotted time is being tracked and owners are being held to those time limitations. Note, if the board chooses not to use a timer owners will likely exceed their allotted time and the owner forum will greatly exceed the allotted timeframe. It is extremely important for the Board to remind owners of the housekeeping rules, as needed and when appropriate, after owner forum begins to maintain “control” over this section of the meeting.

The next major decision a board must make is where in its agenda to place the owner forum. There are advantages and disadvantages to placing the owner forum at the beginning of open board meetings and at the end. Many owners attend open board meetings for the sole purpose of airing their primary complaint or asking a question of the board that has been on their mind. This results in the presence of built up energy within these owners. The tension in the room is unmistakable. Placing the owner forum at the beginning of an open board meeting allows a board to quickly release built up energy and reduces the tension by immediately addressing owner questions and comments. Conducting owner forum first also provides the board with a legitimate reason to keep it short and concise - the board still has an open board meeting to execute. Another advantage is that some very vocal owners will leave the board meeting once owner forum concludes and their question has been answered or their complaint placed. This aids in the removal of tension inside the room and permits the board to progress expediently through its agenda with lower risk of owner interruption.

The primary disadvantage of placing owner forum at the beginning of an open board meeting is the risk that it energizes disgruntled owners and enhances tension levels. If this occurs and the board is not equipped to maintain control over the meeting, chaos and mayheim may follow. Unit owners may overtake the board meeting by grossly exceeding the alloted time for owner forum and by preventing the board from conducting board business. Should this occur the board may be forced to adjourn the meeting without ever conducting any business.

On the other hand, placing owner forum at the end of an open board meeting is advantageous because it ensures the board addresses each item on its agenda as the board meeting occurs before the owner forum. Delaying owner forum until the end of the open board meeting also forces owners to wait quietly through the entire board meeting before having the opportunity to participate. This forced silence may serve to calm highly disgruntled owners so that their participation is more reasoned when it arrives. The other benefit is that a board may more easily adjourn an open board meeting if the owner forum goes sideways after the board has finished conducting its business.

Viewed differently, placing owner forum at the end of an open board meeting forces energized and disgruntled owners to remain “patient” throughout the board meeting. It may prove difficult for even the best board to maintain control over highly motivated and disgruntled owners for an entire board meeting. The likelihood of unit owner interruption increases by asking owners to remain quiet throughout the board meeting. A second disasdvantage is that board members may feel hurried to rush through items on the meeting agenda knowing owners anxiously await the owner forum segment. This can be a real distraction that lowers the effectiveness of board member participation.

Clearly, both options have their pros and cons. Regardless of which approach a Board takes, those that are thoughtful and strategic when administering owner forum dramatically increase the likelihood of those forums being productive, structured and civil.

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