State laws and association governing documents commonly require that a portion of time at board meetings that are open to the association members be devoted to an HOA open forum where the members may be heard on various topics that are of concern to them. As one might expect, giving association members the opportunity to verbalize their feelings at board meetings frequently results inchaos that creates a hostile environment. It is not uncommon for board meetings to be transformed into shouting matches with name-calling and threatening behavior that sometimes results in physical altercations. As a result, the board meeting is disrupted and the directors are not able to properly address all of the items of business that were on the agenda for that meeting. As a consequence of bad experiences with homeowners at board meetings, directors often dread the notion of homeowners being present at their board meetings and the open forum that gives them an opportunity to be heard.
The problems that result from the open forum at board meetings are generally due to a misuse and misunderstanding of the open forum process by the associations directors, management personnel and homeowners. Instead of being a negative experience for those involved in a meeting, the open forum can and should be a very beneficial and valuable part of board meetings. To make the most out of the open forum portion of board meetings it is important to understand the purpose of the open forum and how the process should operate at a meeting of the associations board of directors.
Purpose of Open Forum
The open forum is a dedicated portion of time during an open session board meeting when association members may address the board about any issue that is of concern to them, whether on the agenda for that meeting or not. The right to address the board during the open forum portion of a board meeting does not mean that the members have a right to participate in the boards discussions about matters that are on the agenda for the meeting. The members rights during the non-open forum portions of the meeting are limited to observing the business being conducted by the board.
Proper Time for Open Forum
State laws and governing documents do not generally state when the open forum portion of a board meeting should be conducted. Some associations prefer to conduct the open forum portion of their meeting at the beginning so that owners who want to participate in the open forum can do so and not have to stay throughout the entire meeting. Other associations may choose to schedule the open forum portion of their meeting at the end to enable the board to get through the business on the agenda for the meeting and cut down on the time that members want to speak. With the enforcement of reasonable time limitations for speaking, it is probably more desirable to conduct the open forum at the beginning of meetings in order to give deference to homeowners who do not have the ability to wait the entire duration of a meeting in order to be heard.
Ground Rules for Open Forum
For open forum portions of board meetings to function properly there has to be ground rules that the members are aware of and which are strictly enforced. Typical ground rules include:
Requiring notification prior to commencement of the meeting of a desire to speak.
Establishing and enforcing reasonable time limitations for all speakers.
Establishing limitations on topics, such as personnel and other confidential or sensitive issues that should be addressed privately, or in a writing to the board that may be discussed by the directors in an executive session meeting.
Prohibiting aggressive or threatening conduct and inappropriate language.
Prohibiting disruptive behavior and the interruption of speakers by other members.
Providing for the expulsion of a member who violates the rules from the meeting and/or the imposition of a fine in accordance with appropriate procedures for imposing fines.
Prohibiting the interjection of homeowner comments during the non-open forum portions of the meeting.
Advance Notification of Desire to Speak During Open Forum
To properly budget time that will be allocated to the open forum portion of a meeting and each member who desires to speak, it is a good practice to require members to submit a written notification of their desire to address the board and the topic of concern. This can be effectively accomplished by the inclusion of an area on a sign-in roster for the member to complete. Alternatively, a separate form that is provided to each member when they sign in can be utilized. The chairperson can then review the information prior to the commencement of the meeting to know how many members want to address the directors and allocate an appropriate amount of time for each speaker. The members who express a desire to speak during the open forum should also be provided with a copy of the associations rules pertaining to speaking during the open forum portion of the board meeting.
Set the Tone for the Open Forum
Before the open forum portion of a meeting commences, the chairperson of the meeting should set the tone by explaining the process and reiterating the ground rules. The members should understand that they are not there to participate in a discussion or vote relative to the items on the agenda for the meeting. The members should also be informed that they can ask questions that may raise issues for inclusion on the agenda for a future board meeting, but the directors are limited in how those questions can be responded to when initially raised by the member. The members should understand that, absent a topic that may be deem an emergency situation, the directors responses to their comments during the open forum will be brief acknowledgements of the issue being raised and possible questions for clarification, and to the extent that the topic is going to become the subject of further discussion among the directors, it will be included on the agenda for a future board meeting.
When properly utilized, the open forum portion of a board meeting will provide the associations directors and management personnel with incite on issues that should be addressed by the board, valuable input on homeowner concerns, and suggestions that could be very helpful to the association. The open forum also enables homeowners to feel they are involved in the association and their concerns are being considered. Even if an open forum is not mandated by an associations state laws or governing documents, when utilized properly, they are valuable components of meetings and should be implemented with appropriate controls.