There is nothing an association can do in advance that will guarantee it will not have to cope with a disruptive owner. However, an association can do things that will make it less likely a disruptive owner will surface and that such an owner’s disruptive tactics will be successful.
STEPS TO BE TAKEN IN ADVANCE
Every association should take the following steps:
- Consider, establish, and publish policy resolutions dealing with association governance, including those required by Colorado law, and the following in particular:
- Access to association, staff, and office records;
- Conduct of board and committee meetings;
- Conduct of board members – consider asking board members to sign a code of conduct;
- Consider special rules for member meetings, especially special member meetings;
- Newsletter editorial policy;
- Distribution of literature within the community;
- Nomination, campaigning, and election processes; and
- Rules adoption.
- Establish and operate the community with an open system for the adoption and implementation of policies, regulations, and budgets.
- Insist the board be open and accountable. Open meetings, with few exceptions, are required by Colorado law.
- Establish and operate committees with clear boundaries.
- Do not prohibit dissent or different points of view. Promote a culture of disclosure.
- Protect management from interference by owners.
- Develop and make extensive use of all possible means of communicating with owners.
- Be reasonable and put the “Community First.”
- Purchase and maintain insurance that protects the association – board members, officers, committee members, and the managing agent.
- Educate owners on association operations and don’t be annoyed when owners are unaware.
- Hostile responses to owners may energize their inquiries.
- Rebuttal to all points, especially at the time raised by interested owners, is not necessary. The board should investigate and determine how to proceed.
RESPONDING TO DISRUPTION
The problem of disruptive owners is an evolving one. All of us have already dealt a number of times with owners who disrupt meetings, abuse the committee system, or circulate false or scandalous written material, often under the misnomer of “concerned citizens.” Some relief is available through parliamentary procedures, termination of committees, and dismissing covenant enforcement actions, either within the association or in court.
The problem of disruptive owners can be severe. This is true in two respects. First, the tactics adopted by these owners can be aggressive and hurtful, with a negative impact on association operations. Second, owners may resort to agencies outside the association to force their agenda. Owners who believe they cannot accomplish their objectives within the governance structure of their association may resort to the judicial system, to state and local legislative and administrative bodies, and to the media. For these reasons, associations need a range of responses for severe disruptions within the association. Moreover, the association must have an ability to counter the claims asserted to agencies outside the community by the owners who are unwilling to accept decisions made within the association.
The overall plan in dealing with a truly disruptive owner typically should look something like this:
- Try everything possible to turn the disgruntled owner into a contributor, instead of an expensive problem. Different points of view and dissent in the community should be welcomed and not repeated or sought to be precluded.
- Get the association members behind the board. Build consensus on decisions of the board.
- Look to minimize the costs of dealing with the disruptive owner, both in terms of money costs and in terms of interference with the association’s operations.
- Be sure the association will win in court, or else do not go to court.
- Do not bring the media into the dispute.
- Be cordial in dealing with administrative agencies, but recognize they frequently view themselves as champions of individual citizens and will be slow to recognize a disruptive owner for what he or she is.
- Lay the groundwork with state and local elected officials so that if a disruptive owner appeals to them, they will recognize that your association is a fair and reasonable one and represents a significant group of voters and supporters.
USING THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM TO DEAL WITH A DISRUPTIVE OWNER
Courts are not generally up to the task of dealing with a disruptive owner. Judicial remedies are piece-meal and the expense of obtaining a judicial remedy is high. It can take a long time to obtain a ruling and enforcing the ruling is not easy. Also, judges are not readily convinced of the bad faith of a disruptive owner and tend to be protective of the individual rather than of the association.
Still, there are occasions when no other remedy is available except to take an owner to court. Here are the civil and criminal claims on which the association or an individual target of the disruptive owner may rely for judicial relief.
Actions for Injunction
There is a state statute prohibiting civil harassment. Civil harassment involves the filing of a complaint against an abusive individual whereby damages or injunctive relief can be requested from the Court. Courts will issue orders prohibiting the owner from doing or continuing some act that violates law or the covenants and is injurious to the association when the harm from the act cannot be adequately remedied by money damages. An injunction order can be either mandatory or prohibitory. That is, it can either require the owner to do something or require the owner to refrain from doing something.
Actions for Declaratory Relief
In cases in which an owner disputes an association’s powers or authority, an association may ask a court to declare that it has the power it is asserting.
Actions for Damages
If an association, an officer, director, or employee has been harmed by action by a disgruntled owner, rather than threatened or continuing action, it may be possible to sue the owner for money to compensate for the injury that has occurred.
There are two major types of harassment: criminal and civil. Each municipality or county may define “criminal harassment” differently, so depending on where you live, an action may or may not be “criminal harassment.” The Association cannot threaten criminal harassment against a disruptive owner. The association can ask the local prosecuting attorney (district attorney or city attorney) to bring a criminal harassment charge. The prosecutor has discretion on whether to bring the charge or not.
DEALING WITH GOVERNMENT (LEGISLATIVE AND ADMINISTRATIVE AGENCIES)
Disruptive or dissident owners who seek their objectives outside the association often turn to state and local legislative and administrative bodies, rather than the courts. This is true because owners are finding that if an association has adhered to its covenants and due process procedures, the owner will not fair well in court. In addition, going to court is an expensive proposition for individual owners. On the other hand, there are little or no costs associated with appealing to a legislative body or to a human rights, tenants’ rights commission, or other governmental body. Thus, associations are finding it necessary to defend themselves in these forums.
Several suggestions are in order:
- Learn the ropes;
- Learn the players;
- Understand the limits of the agency’s jurisdiction;
- Understand the appellate process; and
- Be moderate and be bona fide.
DEALING WITH THE MEDIA
Media coverage of associations can affect how the public views owner associations generally, but such coverage usually never has any lasting impact on an individual association.
For this reason, it might be argued that an association can afford to ignore the media and media treatment of an individual story about an association or its affairs. The reality is, however, that association officers are loath to permit a negative story to be run about the community and are always anxious to influence the media to cast their community in the best light possible in all circumstances. When the disgruntled owner turns to the print or electronic media, the association’s officers will surely want their side of the story to be attractively presented to the media and, through the media, to the public.
Here are some general suggestions for dealing with the media:
- Plan, prepare, and practice.
- When the press calls, what should you do?
- Don’t answer questions “on the fly.”
- Do ask questions of the reporter.
- When is your deadline?
- When can I call you back?
- Who else have you interviewed?
- Who else do you plan to interview?
- How did you hear about this?
- Where did you get your information?
- Ask for copies and other supporting comments.
- Don’t immediately discuss the notion of speaking to the reporter.
- Determine worthiness.
- Should you do the interview?
- What do you stand to gain . . . or lose?
- Do you have or can you get all the facts?
- Can you do the interview without getting defensive?
- No comment implies guilt.
- Determine your key messages.
- What is the issue?
- What is your involvement in the issue?
- Why is it important? Who cares?
- What kind of analysis can you provide?
- Clear statements that can back up your point
- Key messaging.
- Conclusion – a sound bite always begins with the conclusion.
- Evidence – offer one or two brief points of explanation, elaboration, or support.
- Meaning – explain how it will affect the viewer/reader.
- Answer directly, honestly, and truthfully.
- Be strong, positive, and committed in your response.
- Cite evidence, facts, and proof.
- Cite benefits.
- End on a short, punchy, and decisive note.
- Anticipate reporter’s questions:
- Loaded questions;
- Unacceptable alternatives;
- Hypothetical situation; and
- Silent treatment from the reporter.
- Become a prompt and reliable source of information.
- Be proactive.
- Be truthful.
- Be helpful.
- Don’t get annoyed.
- Don’t seek revenge.
- Resist attacking the disgruntled owner in speaking with the media.
- Understand the basis on which any conversation with a reporter is bad.
- Decide in advance who will be the single spokesperson for the association.
- Respond succinctly, with brevity, a theme, and a clear message.
- Consider speaking with a personal media consultant.
- Always assume you are on the record.
- “No comment” is not helpful. A responsive, brief, themed comment is helpful.
- Do not repeat negative statements.
- Be gracious and maintain your composure.
- Don’t use terms like “us” and “them.” Use the “community,” the “owners,” etc.
- Be public, not private.
- Reflect community desires.
- Always be impartial.
- Don’t make threats.
- Represent everyone.