Institute aiming for peace at home

Organization advises community groups and homeowners

Communication called key

May 28, 2000|By Robert Nusgart | Robert Nusgart,SUN REAL ESTATE EDITOR

Sari McLeod read them off as if they were the plagues of ancient Egypt.

"Dogs. Trash. Kids. Parking. Maintenance issues on houses," she said.

Of all the issues that can rile a community, those are the five that can pit neighbor against neighbor or homeowner association against homeowner. But McLeod, a seasoned professional community association manager, doesn't believe in confrontation. She believes in communication as the way to resolve neighborhood problems.

"Communication is the biggest key to any organization, much less a community association," said McLeod, who works for the property management firm Wallace H. Campbell Co. "Instead of coming across as a police state, [board members should] come across as, `This is what will benefit our community.' "

McLeod is vice president of the Chesapeake Region Chapter of the Community Association Institute, a national nonprofit association that was created in 1973 to educate and represent homeowner, community and condominium associations and cooperatives. CAI membership is not exclusive to property owners, but includes property and pool management companies, landscapers, engineers, attorneys and other service groups.

On Saturday the chapter, which has 350 members, will be holding its first "Community Association Day" at the Doubletree Inn at The Colonnade, next to Johns Hopkins University.

"Who is the more active? Who comes to more events? I would have to say it is more the service provider," said Camille G. Cimino, executive director of the Chesapeake Region Chapter. "From an educational standpoint, and who should be more involved, is the homeowner.

"These homeowners are out there, sitting on boards [and] they don't have a clue of what they are doing. They really don't."

That is one of the reasons why Cimino is putting on the all-day trade and educational show. The day will feature the chapter's "ABC's seminar - a basic course for association leaders" as well as two advanced courses on "Building Community" and McLeod's topic: "Conflict Resolution." Also scheduled are seminars on landscaping and asphalt maintenance.

Neither Cimino nor McLeod could say how many homeowner and community associations there are in the Baltimore region, but estimated that it could be in the hundreds, with each having its own set of rules, regulations and covenants.

Most homeowner associations (HOAs) elect a governing board to enforce those rules and carry out the business of the community. Some boards do the work themselves; others hire professional management companies to assist them. In either scenario, Cimino said the "ABC" course is beneficial in teaching the basics of how to run an effective HOA.

"The course involves how to work with your management company. How to select a management company, how to select your providers who are going to maintain your pool, cover your parking lot, paint your parking lot, trim your trees ... a lot of board members don't have a clue on how to hire these contractors," Cimino said.

She added that the course also teaches home owners who serve on a board how "not to come across as power mongers." That is where McLeod comes in.

"There are horror stories out there," McLeod said. "I think the most difficult thing that I constantly remind the boards that I work with is you have to make sure you have the authority to make this decision."

McLeod added that boards have a tendency to make community decisions behind closed doors. "You have to remind groups that they can't meet in secret," she said, adding that the law allows boards to have work sessions out of the public eye, "but you can't make decisions in secret, they have to be done in open board meetings.

"It's one of those things that people in the business world, they are so used to having closed-door executive sessions and finally announcing what the results are. In this case, the law is very clear, you must have open meetings."

McLeod said she has seen newer communities in the Baltimore area entrust more power to the board of directors, as opposed to older communities, where actions require a majority vote among property owners. "They can't get a lot accomplished because they have to have so many people vote for it," McLeod said.

Still, her main priority is to teach board members how to be civil when trying to enforce community regulations.

"The best board member is one who looks at the community as a whole and wants to work for the community as a whole and not just a fraction of the community. [They have] the patience and willingness to deal with upset neighbors," McLeod said.

"It's good to let the person vent and then after they vent, then very calmly you respond to them. If you take the time with them to explain it, nine times out of 10, it is defused. It's all in reaction. Do you yell back? Do you scream back? Do you use the filthy language that they use? No. You do just the opposite. Reverse the situation. Sometimes you have to use reverse psychology."

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