Conducting Effective Meetings

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Does this sound like your association?  The meeting starts. A “homeowner’s forum” begins.  A homeowner is recognized.  He starts with a complaint – something that has nothing to do with the function of the Board.  The Board tries to answer.  Answer isn’t accepted.  Other owners start to join in the discussion.  From time to time the President or manager tries to get it back into some sort of resemblance of order – usually successfully.  Then another homeowner, another question, and another group discussion – and on it goes for hours.   Nothing is accomplished.  In the best case a lot of folks got to let off steam.  In the worst case, the association is polarized, people are mad, cliques are formed…  Then the business session starts.  The Board members are opening their packets for the first time (it may even be the first time they have seen them).  All kinds of questions then come from the Board.  The manager can answer some but not all of those questions.  Some decisions are made; other decisions are tabled for another meeting.  Three hours pass, little is accomplished, and everyone goes home drained.
Or does this sound like your association?  The meeting starts.  The Board informs the membership that they will be dealing with the business portion of the meeting and after that is over there will be a short “member comment period”.  The board member moves to approve the consent calendar without comment and receives a second.  One Board Member has a concern on one item.  The motion is amended to approve the rest of the consent calendar without comment.  The vote is called and the items are approved.  The Board acknowledges the items of interest and affirms without motion that they have reviewed the items on that portion of the agenda for the record.  There are three action items.  The Board has had their packets for a week.  They have independently called management on any items they have questions concerning, and have done their own individual due diligence on each item.  A motion is made and seconded in turn for each item.  If no second, the motion is restated until a motion is received.  A discussion takes place (usually about 10 minutes), the vote called.  This happens for all three items. The total time to cover the business portion is typically 30 minutes.  The “member comment period begins” and each homeowner interested is given three minutes to bring matters of a policy nature to the Board.  They are thanked.  The meeting ends in a typical time of 45 minutes to an hour total.
If your meetings run something like the second scenario – great.  If your meetings sound like the first scenario, consider making the necessary changes to allow that to happen.  The suggestions below are not mandates, and they are not the ONLY way to run a meeting.  They are suggestions that work, however, and I hope you will consider them or some modification to them.
There are three key elements that are necessary to have an effective and efficient meeting.  First, each Board member needs to come to the meeting prepared.  Secondly, an orderly process should be standard that keeps the agenda moving and eliminates unfocused discussion.  The member comment period should be structured to receive valuable input from the membership without turning it into an ineffective bitching session.
Board Members must come to the meeting prepared. If they do not, the meeting will be full of interruptions, clarifications, and unanswered questions.  The probability of a bad decision is increased, as is the probability that the item is tabled for another meeting with more facts present.  In order for the Board to come to the meeting prepared, the Board packet needs to be complete, accurate, and timely.  Boards should insist that they have their Board packet at least one week ahead of time.  Any item for which the Board is expected to make a decision should be fully explained in the packet.  Every Board member should read the packet as soon after receiving it as possible.  They certainly need to pay close attention to anything that will require a vote.  They need to fully understand those issues and actually come to the meeting with their intended position on the issue.  If the issue is still not clear after they read the board packet, they need to get hold of the manager (or whoever else put the action item on the agenda) and get clarification.  They should do their own individual due diligence.  If that means asking for a legal opinion, they should ask.  If that means calling the landscaper (or asking the manager to do so) to get a better technical understanding, they should do that.  This process is not only key to an effective meeting, it is key to reducing each Board Member’s personal liability.  In short, not doing the above is breaching the trust the membership has granted you.
Additionally, it will be important to have your committees make any recommendations they want you to take action on early enough that those recommendations and the committee’s rationale are also in the Board packet.  You should never make a decision on an item that is not an emergency if you are hearing it for the first time at the meeting.  Board members have a duty to make sure they understand the issue, and if necessary to do individual inquiry before taking action.
The meeting should follow an orderly process. Typically, that is some modified form of Robert’s Rules although other structures are acceptable.  There is no requirement that any particular procedure be followed, and if you use Robert’s Rules you can modify them however you desire.  You don’t have to require motions and seconds, although I recommend you do only because it keeps the meeting focused.  Following that procedure stops arguments.  A very simple process of someone introducing the agenda item with a motion and a second makes sure at least two Board members are in agreement on the decision to be reached.  If the motion does not get a second, someone restates the motion in a more acceptable manner.  Then you proceed with any needed discussion and call the vote.  If there is another procedure that works better for your association then use it.  What you want to do is keep the action items portion of the meeting moving.  When the discussion starts to become cyclic (no new information), insist on calling a vote and move past the matter one way or another.
Just as importantly, consider putting routine items on a consent agenda and approve them with one motion.  Items that work well on the consent agenda are things like approving the minutes of the previous meeting, sending delinquent homeowners to lien, and other items where approval is going to be routine.  There is no reason to discuss at all.  Simply make a motion and second to approve the consent agenda followed by a quick vote.  If as an exception there is something a Board member feels like discussing – you can at that time remove it from the bundle to be handled and discuss individually and then approve the rest of the consent agenda.
Also, consider not discussing at all items that are simply there for review.  Typical items that fit this category include the review of the financials and the review of maintenance checklists.  There should be no reason to discuss them.  It is important that you actually have reviewed them in that week you had the board packet.  However, if you had any questions they can be answered before or after the meeting and would not typically need an action by the Board.  If you had a question and it was clarified and a Board Member feels it should be shared, they can certainly do so.  However, basically put those types of items in one group on the agenda and get past them.  The President or manager (whoever is leading the meeting) may simply state “I assume everyone reviewed these items prior to the meeting, and barring any need to discuss them we will let the minutes so reflect.”  Those items are on the agenda just to satisfy the legal requirement that you review them – but it does not need to be a group discussion unless you just want to lengthen the time of the meeting.
Basically then, all your time is spent on action items which each Board member has already individually come up to speed on before the meeting.  Even if the Board is not unanimous, you should be able to discuss and vote in a fairly short period of time.
The important point here is that Board Meetings are for Boards of Directors to make decisions.  Envision a corporate Board meeting.  The Board sits around a table facing each other, sharing paperwork and discussion aimed at each other.  An excellent suggestion is to actually hold the business session sitting around a table facing each other and not in a row facing the audience like the city council.  People presenting to the Board should be invited to come sit at the table during that presentation and then leave the table when they have finished.  When it is time for the member comment period, take a short break and rearrange so you are all facing the membership.
Control the member comment period. Please note that I am using the term “member comment period” and not “homeowner’s forum”.  This is important.  A forum as it applies to meetings is defined as an assembly or meeting place for the discussion of questions of public interest.   That implies a town hall sort of scenario with a free exchange of ideas.  Unfortunately, that model is inconsistent with the corporate structure of a common interest development.  The Civil Code provides that the Board shall provide a reasonable time for members to speak.  It is important that the Board hear from the membership, but there are some real legal issues (discussed in a different article) with the Board doing any more than responding with a thank you, or perhaps a promise to agenda the issue for a future Board meeting.
While members may comment on anything they want, avoid providing answers.  Operational questions (Why is the light bulb out?) can be answered by acknowledging and thanking the member and recommending they contact management after the meeting to get the answer.  Those questions can be answered any day of the month and do not directly involve the policy issues Boards deal with.  Productive questions are questions of a policy nature similar to “We seem to have too many light bulbs out.  Could the Board address how we replace them and see if it can be done more often?”  That sort of question may well deserve a thank you and a promise to look into the matter.  If you do that enough to establish the pattern, the membership will quickly pick up on the trend and things will be smoother and quicker.  Generally, three minutes per member is a reasonable time period.  There are other techniques to help streamline this process and those will be discussed in a future article.  The short suggestion is avoid turning it into a question and answer period, and that is best done by not answering at all.  You want input, suggestions and concerns – those are all important.  By functioning this way you receive that input while avoiding argument, friction, and divisiveness.
If your member comment period is at the end of the meeting instead of the beginning, they tend to be more efficient, and the membership is actually present to see the business portion of the meeting.  Too often, if it is at the beginning, most of the membership leaves before it is over and misses the business portion of the meeting.  When that happens, they soon think that the comment period is the only reason for the meeting, and they never see what the Board is actually doing.
If any of our readers has found other techniques that help keep meetings effective and efficient, we would appreciate your passing them to us.  As mentioned earlier there are many, many techniques and what works for one association may not work for another.  Whatever you do for your association, however, should be designed to keep meetings focused and get business conducted efficiently.
This article is provided by The Helsing Group, Inc.