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HOA Communications: Dos and Don'ts for Responding to Owners' Letters to the Board

February 2012
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Surely, you get letters from owners. The question is how your should HOA Board of Directors respond. Do all letters require a response? If not, which do, and which don't? And who should respond? Your board president, the property manager, or another person? Finally, what should and shouldn't you include in responses to owners' letters?

Here, we offer dos and don'ts.

Your HOA Governing Docs Set the Stage

You might be surprised to find that your governing documents address this issue. "The standard answer is that you do whatever your governing documents say you do," explains Justin D. Park, an attorney at Romero Park & Wiggins PS in Bellevue, Wash., who advises homeowners associations. "I've seen ones that talk about communications with the board, and they have specific terms for dealing with those communications."

Also be aware of state laws. "In Florida, condo associations are basically required to respond if an owner sends an inquiry by certified mail," explains Lisa A. Magill, a shareholder and association attorney at Becker & Poliakoff PA in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

If you get no guidance from your governing documents or state law, what to do? Actually, that requires some board thought. "This speaks to larger issue," says Debra A. Warren, principal of Cinnabar Consulting in San Rafael, Calif., which provides training and employee development services to community association management firms and training and strategic planning sessions for association board members. "What's the association's policy for conflict resolution? You not only want to provide information to owners, but you also want to protect the corporation from undue lawsuits, small–claims procedures, and situations where you have to get attorneys involved and increase your legal expenses. Focus on what you need to do to resolve conflict in ways that are the least costly and that take as few resources as possible.

"More important," adds Warren, "consider the procedures you're going to go through to minimize conflict with your owners. In some states, there are requirements for a meet–and–confer. When that's not required by law, your board can still adopt the process. Usually the kinds of letters that come in that are troublesome or create a 'what do we do?' scenario occur when people feel they're not being heard. They're being told to come to a meeting or to put their concerns in writing. Sometimes it's important to have them hear what their elected board member has to say, and then the issue can be over."

Once you've considered big–picture issues, you can then create everyday policies for addressing letters. "I tell my boards that there are generally specific methodologies set aside for the boards to communicate with members," explains Park. "The most common of which is the general, regular board meeting. In most board meetings, there should be an opportunity for people to be heard on issues. I've had some boards where, if they get letters, they bring them to the board meeting and treat them as if the person had shown up at the meeting."

What board members or managers shouldn't do is fire of a quick email response. "Email is far too easy," says Park. "A member will send an email to a board member, 'Here's my question.' The board member hits reply, and suddenly that response is treated as a board policy.

"Personal communication like that should be prefaced with a statement that you're offering your opinion, not speaking with the weight of the board behind you, and that if the owner wants the entire board to comment in an official manner on this question, the owner needs to attend the next board meeting," says Park. "It's impossible to tell board members not to communicate with members via email. That's why we devised that statement."

Respond to Every Owner's Letter?

Our experts disagree on whether to respond to every letter.

"We believe you should respond to every letter, no matter what the subject matter is," says Chris Yergensen, senior vice president and corporate counsel of RMI Management LLC, a Las Vegas–based company that manages about 300 condo association and HOAs. "That policy of whether the board is going to respond rests with them. But our recommendation is that they always respond. Or if they'd like us to respond, that's something they can choose, too."

Don't get Yergensen wrong. He's not saying you respond substantively to every crackpot who writes to the board. Sometimes your response may be a general acknowledgement that you've received a letter and nothing more. "We don't have a form letter, but we do respond saying something like, 'We received your letter and will forward it onto the board,'" he explains. "When it gets into a personal attack, the board member will usually respond on his own behalf. If board members ask us to respond, we say something like, 'Your letter was received, and we appreciate the feedback.' We try not to fuel the fire."

That's Magill's concern—worsening the situation. "It's nice to have a policy on responding to general correspondence," she says. "But with really nasty letters that aren't constructive and you're not required to respond, by responding back and forth, you're adding fuel to the fire. In some cases, it's better to leave the letter in a file and not respond. Let it roll off your shoulders."

Warren falls somewhere in the middle. "A good rule of thumb is that the board should look at the communication as if they had sent it," she explains. "Treat other people like you'd want to be treated. Start there. If someone sends you a letter, try to look past the messenger and look at the message. There may be something in that letter that needs a response. Generally, it's a good idea to send acknowledgment of receipt. If you're not going to respond to the content because it's from someone who sends letters over and over again, still be courteous: 'The board is in receipt of your letter and understands your concerns. However, no action will be taken at this time.' At least acknowledge the letter and take time to ensure there isn't something in there that actually needs your attention."

Most important, don't bicker over minutiae. "If you get one of those letters, it's important that you respond to the owner's concerns, but you shouldn't debate the owner's impressions or feelings," says Warren. "If an owner's angry that a tree has been taken down, address in a factual way that the tree has been taken down. Don't respond to the junk. Just respond to the fact."

When Can Board Members Offload the Burden of Responding?

As often as possible, advises Park, take advantage of your manager's expertise in responding to letters. "If a letter includes a question about the association's existing policy or procedure, I think it's entirely appropriate for managers to respond when they have information on that particular question," he says. "If someone's raising a dispute or an issue the board needs to address, I don't want the manager to respond to those letters."

Magill agrees. "If a letter is about a lack of maintenance, you could have a policy stating that it goes to your manager or particular board member so it can be calendared or followed up on," she explains. "The letter might say a laundry machine isn't working. The policy is that the letter goes to someone with authority or the expertise to check it out. It may also be appropriate to acknowledge receipt of the letter and give a time frame for a response. Or you may want to respond after the fact saying, 'Thanks for bringing it to our attention; now it's fixed.'"

For less clear–cut management issues, require that your manager work with the board on responses. "Generally speaking, advise managers that they need to have a particular board contact," says Park. "Let's say an issue involves an architectural committee issue. Before the manager responds, he should touch base with someone on the architectural committee to make sure there's agreement that what's being sent out is correct.

"Some associations also have form letters that say things like, 'We see you've done this' and the manager fills in the blank. 'Please appear before the architectural committee on this date,'" adds Park. "That's entirely appropriate because those forms have been approved by the committee, and the committee initiates the sending of that letter. The manager doesn't make decisions—that's the key. The manager doesn't govern. The manager manages."

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