I have had discussions with many industry professionals who have endured recalls, but had not had the good fortune (*snort*) to experience it first hand in my managing career. Alas, that experience is no longer on my bucket list: A couple of years ago I consulted with a Board of whom 5 out of the 7 members were subject to a recall. I expected it to be unpleasant but I didn’t realize the magnitude of the impact that event would have on the Board members and the community as a whole. Frankly, recall is a long and bloody process that pits neighbor against neighbor and leaves everyone bruised and battered. In short, it’s an awful, awful thing that typically does little but make misery.
If you’ve been through the process, I’d welcome your thoughts on how to get yourself, and the Board, on the other side of the event in as close to one piece as is possible. For now, here are my thoughts on getting through the ugly mess that is recall.
Basic Premise of Recall
In the political process of community associations there is opportunity for the real or imagined possibility of a Board of Directors to “go astray” from their duties. Since the community is managed by elected representatives, one remedy available for an aggrieved group is to recall, by direct vote, the elected individuals that are suspected of such transgressions1.
What to Expect
The recall will cost money. If you manage in California, there are special requirements for all elections, recalls included, to use a third party to administrate the process. If you manage elsewhere, there are all the normal costs associated with elections, including legal fees, mailing, printing, etc. In the recall election I witnessed, the cost was in the $15,000 range2.
Recall is stressful and personal to the Board. There is no sense in denying it; a recall is a personal, public rebuke to a Board. As they have spent countless volunteer hours working on behalf of the community for months or years; most of it unknown, unseen and unacknowledged.
Recall is stressful to the community. The members will be required to take sides in this process and that is stressful. A depressive pawl spreads over the community, taking most of the joy out of the environment. Everyone would like to get along, they thought they were, and now they are not. Is it time to move?
It will grow beyond the purported original sin(s). The recall crowd will pander to and bring along others to their cause; including those with ancient, festering beefs with the association that happened so long ago they may have been etched on stone tablets; those who are still unhappy the ARC didn’t approve a patio extension in ‘09; those who simply want attention or have a general axe to grind; even ex-Board members seeking an additional 15 minutes of fame. A recall gives all of these folks, and more, a common platform to stick it to the Board. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Small things will become big things. Trivial incidents are blown all out of proportion, wild-eyed emails (IN BIG FONT AND BRIGHT COLORS!) indicating vast conspiracies, transgressions and illegal activities on the part of the Board and/or management, outright lies told as fact and petty jealousies ramped up to the point of no return. All you can do is buckle in and hold on tight.
Battling egos. From my observation and from those of colleagues who deal with them regularly, recall, as a political tool, is often used to (attempt to) ram through personal agendas that have little to do with the betterment of the community and a lot to do with personal aggrandizement (shocking!).
Management is part of the problem. Typically not true, of course, but if more poo can be spread to sweeten the fertile ground of unrest, it surely will be. Management will get caught up in the blame game, as of course, you work with the Board, so you must be one of “them.”
Projects and initiatives will slow down or halt completely, and Board meetings will be less productive and take longer as a recall requires an incredible amount of emotional energy. People only have so much bandwidth; especially when this isn’t their life – it’s a volunteer position.
A recall is a very draining exercise. Yes indeed, a recall is an energy-draining exercise that will tax your emotional resources, try your patience and set your teeth on edge. Now – think about the Board, multiply that by 3 and you have how they feel and they aren’t even getting paid. Some members of your Board may go temporarily incommunicado as the stress builds. It is best to be understanding of this phenomenon rather than be judgmental. Usually, they will come back after some cooling time.
a Manager Can Do
Stay calm and steady. Even if the Board is publicly handling the recall well, rest assured that privately they are running a range of emotions and that is absolutely understandable: Sadness, anger, frustration… It’s all a part of having their integrity impugned by people with whom they share common interests, a neighborhood, and on whose behalf dutiful board members have worked tirelessly– without compensation. The greatest gift management can give the Board under recall is a steady, calm presence that keeps them as on track as possible yet acknowledges what they are going through.
Project professional impartiality. As an outside consultant, I spent several hours with leaders of the recall group, listening to their issues and even inspecting the property with them. It was cordial, and somewhat productive at least in getting a sense of who was coming from where (politics make very strange bedfellows!). As the manager, you’ll have to interact with the “other side” quite a bit, much of it quite stressful as you, too, are dragged in to the emotionally-charged swamp of recall. This is the time to dig deep for every ounce of knowledge and experience you have in dealing with very difficult people: Don’t be goaded in to a spitting match with anyone, stay out of the crazy email trains and take a very deep breath when answering questions from the more-than-ever-angry crowd. Hard to do, yes, but it’s the best thing for your emotional health, the Board and the community as a whole.
This, Too, Shall Pass
A recall election will suck the air out of the room while it’s happening, but it will pass. Pieces will need to be picked up so, with your help and if it’s possible, the community can glue itself back together. This, too, will be a part of your job and one aided greatly by your professional comportment during such a stressful and discordant process. Part of your job will be to show the way back to normalcy, handling the day-to-day business affairs of the community (almost?) as if nothing happened.
So how did the (above-referenced) recall work out? The Board opened communication channels, held special “chat” meetings and spent countless hours speaking informally with owners. Supportive “anti-recall” groups sprang up, sending out emails countering the recall effort. All of these endeavors marshaled supporters who turned out in droves on the actual day of election. The Board beat the recall, and not by a small margin. The best part? When the results were announced, the crowd of over 300 people leaped to its feet and gave a 5 minute standing ovation, with high-fives, tears and hugging all around – and that was the crowd, not the Board – who received a resounding vote of confidence to carry on with their chosen agenda. Frankly, one of the most gratifying moments I have witnessed in my 30+ years in the industry, only to be topped by watching the recall proponents slink out of the meeting, stunned at their loss.
The Wrap Up
For the manager, I recommend calm, patience, understanding and a willingness to take it slow with the Board and the community members. For the management company, a steady hand and a supportive presence during the process as well as at the recall meeting itself.
Recalls are expensive, messy and can change a community for better or for worse. I do understand their purpose as a needed check-and-balance for real problems; however, from my observation and discussion with other professionals, recalls are often used as a tool to promote egos and agendas that have little to do with “what’s best for the community.” In the end, it’s just another *special* day at the office for the community manager.
c. 2019 Julie Adamen, Adamen Inc. all rights reserved
Footnotes: 1. Recall elections may not be an available course of action in all communities or states. 2. This is an approximate value for a large California association exclusive of legal fees. Values will differ by size, complexity and state.
Julie Adamen is the principal of Adamen Inc., a national consulting and employment firm specializing in the community management industry formed in 1997. She is a recognized expert in community management, community management compensation and association and management company operations. She is a prolific author, educator, motivational speaker and trainer for community managers and Boards of Directors. She is the author and publisher of online classes for managers, Community Association Management 101, a series of online classes for community association management professionals and volunteers.