By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
For several years here at IAC, I’ve been posting articles about election and voting disputes in association-governed communities.
Homeowners contact me regularly, complaining that their homeowners,’ condominium, or cooperative association engages in manipulative tactics and dirty tricks to rig elections or referenda on important issues that require a vote of membership.
Proxies are collected and hoarded by board members. Ballot signatures are forged, resulting in dead people and absentee owners that “vote” in the election. The community manager or HOA attorney collects all of the ballots and proxies, even though they have a vested interest in maintaining current board members. Understandably, allegations of tampering with ballots and proxies are common.
Sometimes, and HOA nominating committee hand-picks board candidates and denies others the opportunity to run for election. Or the board simply cancels an upcoming election because, they say, candidates or incumbent board members are running unopposed.
Because of the corporate structure of most association-governed communities established since the 1970s, owners of multiple properties or larger condominium apartments get proportionately greater voting power in the association. Non-owners or non-shareholders don’t get to vote on association matters, nor do they get to elect the board, even if they reside in the community.
In general, there’s no such thing as One Person/Resident, One Vote in a mandatory membership HOA. That, of course, opens the door for hostile investor takeovers of the corporate association — and forced termination of condominium associations, in particular.
Florida’s large, master planned communities — often at least 1,000 homes, but potentially tens of thousands of homes subdivided into separate phases, villages, or neighborhoods — are also big offenders of the democratic electoral process.
At the master association level, individual members (property owners) don’t usually get a direct vote. The board President of each subassociation or village casts a vote on behalf of all members in seperate individual neighborhoods.
See the following explanation by Florida community association attorney.
What does this mean to homeowners?
Think about the power of the master HOA. Typically, it has the authority to create an annual budget and set assessments to meet its expenses. A master HOA may collect assessments to pay for private roads, community-wide storm water management, shared recreational amenities, and more. (Although sometimes a special district, such as community development district (CDD) exists as a separate public taxing authority with responsibility for maintenance.)
The master association often enacts rules and enforces CC&Rs and architectural standards. It obtains relevant insurance policies. Matters involving traffic control, parking, crime prevention, security, gated entries, and more, are often addressed at the master HOA level.
The master HOA can raise assessment levels, make major financial commitments on behalf of all members, or amend governing documents with a vote of its handful of board members!
For example, a community of 2,500 homes divided into 12 villages has a master HOA board of 12 Village HOA Presidents. Therefore, twelve individuals make decisions that affect owners and residents of all 2,500 homes.
Individual homeowners do not vote directly on master HOA matters. Likewise, homeowners do not vote for the village board member — usually the President — who will serve on the master HOA board.
To clarify, although members do elect their Village boards (after the developer relinquishes control), they do not elect officers of the board. A nonprofit board of directors typically elects its own President, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer.
The usual excuse for not giving owner-members a direct vote at the master association level: the sheer size of the community makes obtaining a quorum impossible. The quorum sets a minimum voter participation level for the association, often 20-30 percent of total membership.
By contrast, local municipalities of a similar size or much larger than a master planned community have been running elections on a one person, one resident, registered voter basis — without a quorum — for more than a century.
Clearly, it is possible to conduct a democratic election, even in a large scale, master planned community, if the HOA industry would allow for removing quorum requirements, among other voting reforms.
I am told that many master planned communities across the U.S. use a similar model of governance — this is not limited to Florida. If you live in large planned community in another state, let me hear from you in the comment sesion below: How does your HOA handle voting at the master association level?