Since 1982, Tom Soter has been an editor at Habitat magazine, the definitive publication for boards of cooperatives and condominiums in New York City.
From HABITAT, March 2011
From the Editor 28: Recalls
Special sessions, special lessons
I felt like a spy. And no wonder: I was a spy. I had been talking to a shareholder who lived in a large co-op complex about a special meeting that was being staged to vote on the removal of three board members. I asked him if I could attend the meeting, to see what was going on as material for a story I was writing on special elections.
“Well, I can’t go,” he said. “But you can. Just go. They don’t check to see if you live there.”
We talked a little bit more about the subject, about which he had mixed feelings. “In a downturn,” he said, “you have to tighten your belt. This meeting is costing us a lot of money. Do we really need it when we have an election in two months?” He noted that he lived most of his 50+ years in the cooperative, first as a child and now as a married father of two, adding: “The board has made mistakes; there have been a series of bad decisions – sometimes they seem to go for the cheap decisions. But what do I know? How qualified am I to serve on the board? It seems to be a lot of talk.”
At the meeting a week later, nearly 300 people gathered in a huge auditorium for a piece of theater that seemed to confirm the view of the shareholder with whom I had been chatting: it was a lot of talk, much of it heated.
A middle-aged white man was speaking into the microphone to the raucous crowd. “Can’t hear you!” someone shouted out. “Speak into the mike!” yelled another.
He tried again. “That better?” he asked. There was a smattering of applause. Then the moderator explained the purpose of the gathering: it was called because a certain percentage of shareholders signed a petition requesting the meeting to vote on the removal of three board members.
Audience members were given two minutes to speak at strategically placed microphones. “Why are you so secretive?” one woman asked the board, ignoring the subject of the recall and dealing with her own issue. “Why won’t you tell us what the super is being paid? We are his employers, aren’t we?”
Another woman returned to the topic of the recall, asserting that she was a former prosecutor and adding: “If I had the sort of flimsy evidence you are presenting against these people, I would not bring the case to trial. It is ridiculous.”
Other speakers supported the board, some attacked the legal counsel, still others wanted to chide both sides. “You are like children,” said an older man, self-described former board president. “I wouldn’t trust either side.” It went on like that for nearly three hours.
The next day, I talked with a shareholder who had attended the special session. “The recall vote seems to have put a big rift in the community,” I asserted.
“That’s nothing new,” she replied, amusement in her voice. “There have been many rifts in this community. In my opinion, that’s the nature of living in a big complex.” She added: “There are a lot of people who want to bury their heads in the sand and say, ‘Let’s be nice to each other, let’s just get along,’ but they don’t understand what proper governance is.”
And what exactly is that? I ask. “It’s about making unpopular choices,” she replied. “Some want a zero maintenance increase or a one-percent increase. They want to live in Shangra-La, a place that doesn’t exist anymore. They actually put out a flyer saying, ‘We want to return to living in an affordable community.’ What planet are they living on? Aren’t real estate taxes going up $2 million?”
The special session was symptomatic of the problem with a lot of shareholders, she noted. “People don’t read our bylaws. They make generalizations, and they just don’t understand. They don’t base things on the facts.”
March 3, 2011