The condo board was making all the gestures of a governing body committed to transparency. It circulated board meeting minutes as a standard practice, unprompted by records requests, and it distributed newsletters to keep owners current on the affairs of their condo corporation.
But the frustrations of going through the post-occupancy growing pains of getting deficiencies resolved in the more than 400-unit building were palpable, said Alexandra Cote, president of the West Queen West condo board. So Cote and her fellow directors decided to offer owners a forum to bring their concerns and suggestions. The board began hosting ‘office hours’ — technically, a half hour — immediately before its monthly closed-door meetings where corporation business gets carried out.
“We thought it would be the best way to have some face-to-face time, and let people meet the board and put a face to a name, express their concerns, their frustrations, and really have an opportunity to feel heard instead of just an email acknowledgment of, ‘Yes, we’re working on it,’” said Cote.
Setting up office hours
Condo boards are bound by confidentiality in certain matters, so conferring with legal counsel and property management was an important first step in setting up office hours, Cote confirmed. She said that apart from updates that may be available, the board is generally limited to going over information that has already been shared with owners in other formats.
Every month, a week before the board is due to meet, property management emails owners inviting them to attend office hours. Owners who plan to attend are instructed to submit the issue they’re hoping to discuss, which gives the board a chance to prepare, including doing background research and consulting legal counsel as needed.
“To date, there hasn’t been anything that’s come in that hasn’t been appropriate to talk about, but if there is, that’s why we ask for agenda items in advance,” said Cote. “Mostly it’s about privacy, so if they want to complain about another unit specifically, it’s not appropriate for other owners to be hearing about that, so we’re mindful about that.”
As board president, Cote kicks off office hours with opening remarks before turning over the floor to the owners who have gathered in the party room, who are invited to address the board similar to the way citizens speak to agenda items before their municipal councils. Different directors will respond to different issues based on their areas of expertise — for example, the treasurer tackles financial topics, she said.
Afterward, the board documents what gets discussed during office hours in its meeting minutes, including any follow-up that may be required.
Hot topics of interest
In their first few months, the office hours have attracted just a few owners at a time, said Cote. A dysfunctional elevator has been a hot topic, even though, as she pointed out, the West Queen West condo is far from alone in its experience.
However, as months passed, owners started to question why it was taking so long to fix the dysfunctional elevator, despite regular email updates, Cote recalled. In addition to allowing owners to air their frustrations, office hours have given the board a platform to dispel misconceptions and explain delays, she said. In the case of the elevator repair, the cost is covered under the new home warranty program, so the corporation is not paying for it — contrary to misconception — and the sources of delays — namely labour and parts shortages — are beyond the board’s control.
“I find people come with a lot of energy, and once they see the faces of the people that have been working on this issue, they understand,” said Cote. “We’re all residents of the building, we’re all owners in the building, and they get it, that we are just as frustrated as they are, and we are real people doing our best.”
Inviting owners to attend office hours has also helped humanize the volunteer directors, she said, observing that it has provided reassurance that the board is made up of people who have a stake in the corporation following recent news reports of non-owners co-opting boards in other communities.
Plus, Cote added, office hours have given owners a chance to bump issues up the to-do list. In one case, the board was able to implement a quick fix — instructing property management to talk to a commercial tenant — after an owner alerted it to the nuisance that was being caused by delivery trucks honking to announce their arrival in the laneway.
Measuring the community impact
It has only been a few months now, but Cote said hosting office hours has so far been a positive experience, breaking down perceived barriers between the board and owners.
“Opening up the door and saying, ‘Listen, we’re here, we’re accessible, you can come speak to us anytime,’ really disarmed a lot of feelings,” she said. “It really helped build more of a sense of community and partnership with the board instead of this othering that was happening.”
Michelle Ervin is the editor of CondoBusiness.