It's been quite the busy year so far, so I apologize my blog posts have been few and far between. Trying to make a difference in Florida community associations is a major task, but comes with some rewards. Our firm was again a winner of the Florida Community Association Journal's Readers' Choice Awards.
The topic for today's blog is transparency. Transparency is a good thing. Associations should recognize if they want their members to pay their assessments on time, keep their property maintained and volunteer to help the community, then transparency is the place to start. The Florida Legislature has started pushing for this with the recent legislative updates to the Condominium Act, Chapter 718, Florida Statutes, by requiring condominium associations with 150 units or more to have a website and post a good number of the official records on the website. This statute has not been enacted in Chapter 720 governing homeowner associations, but maybe we will see this in the future.
Some of the biggest complaints I hear from homeowners are about transparency -- the HOA will not provide them copies of the records, the records are not easily obtained, the HOA is hiding something. Now I will be the first to admit this is a red flag for me and I suspect something fishy is going on with the money if the HOA is fighting too hard to keep the members from seeing the financials. I also recognize some board members do not understand their duties, do not know what records to keep or how to keep them, which records can be disclosed and not disclosed, or how to set up a website to store the documents so members can see them without going through the certified letter, return receipt process. Those are the HOAs I am eager to represent so I can train their board members on the right protocol.
The homeowners need to understand the HOA has no duty to respond to a request to send copies to them. There is a duty to provide access to the official records and allow the members to make copies at the inspection.
Often this request makes even honest board members suspicious. It's only natural to get defensive when a request is received and perceived as an attempt to catch you doing something wrong. And board members make mistakes while homeowners tend to accuse them of intentional wrong-doing. If everyone would just be respectful of each other and act in a civil manner a good number of these disputes would not even be disputes.
My advice is:
- HOAs put your official records on a website if possible or set up one of the free software applications like Google Docs or Dropbox to share documents with members. Not only is it easier, but it takes out the possibility of confrontations if one side just can't be civil and respectful.
- Homeowners use the certified letter, return receipt in order to obtain access to records so that you document your request and everyone knows the deadline (10 business days from the date the receipt is signed). Also, make your request clear and if possible exact. Asking for "all official records" is your legal right, but it is creates some difficulties because the HOA may have boxes and boxes of records which you will have to go through and may be required to pay for a management person to assist in going through with you. In addition, it comes across as a fishing expedition and like all fishing trips, you may have to keep casting lots of times before you get the fish you want. If you are looking for a specific financial transaction, narrow down the description of your request.
- HOAs remember you cannot ask the homeowner why they want the document.
- Everyone keep in mind the HOA does not have to produce a document it does not have. This means no creating special reports if the reports are not used in the normal course of running the HOA. If there is a document the HOA should have and can reasonably obtain it without any undue hardship, then the HOA should get it after the first request so it is available should a second request be made for that document.