In HOAs, committees can be either an invaluable resource for the board or an incredible waste of time. But by following some important steps prior to forming a committee, associations can avoid “death by committee” and improve their relationship with the community.
Are you considering using or participating in an HOA committee? Committees can be an invaluable resource to the board and the larger community, performing work that would otherwise be impossible for 5 volunteer board members.
But now for some real talk. In too many associations, committees exist for a couple of reasons:
- The governing documents require an “architectural control” committee, but it exists without direction or support.
- Somebody keeps bringing up an “Issue” at board meetings, so the board puts them in charge of the “Issue Committee.”
Committees that simply occupy space or exist to distract owners are a waste of time, and a potential liability. If you are interested in using committees to help the board to get things done, some important legwork is in order.
Should We Use Committees?
A committee isn’t a panacea. If you’ve experienced Death by Committee – that limbo where important (or inconsequential) projects go to die – you know the ugly side of committee work. Committees can only be effective if they have a clear purpose, good organization, and the right people. And who creates that environment? The board. So is a committee worth the effort?
No, if you do not have a clearly defined purpose and goal for your committee. “Tim thinks security is a problem, so we’ll put him on a committee” is not an association purpose. In fact, the purpose is “get rid of Tim.” Use a committee to solve a problem, not a problem person.
No, if you want to make someone other than the board responsible for a problem. A committee can’t accept responsibility. Even on committees with decision-making authority, the board is ultimately responsible for the actions of the committee.
Yes, if your governing documents require standing committees. Common standing committees are architectural control, landscaping, and budget committees. But don’t “form and forget” your committee or you will frustrate the committee members and the board.
Yes, if you have a clearly-defined project or purpose for a committee. Reviewing frequent architectural control requests is a great task for a committee, if the guidelines are clear. Single project commitees may also be effective if they have a clear charter: “report on the feasibility of replacing composite roofs with tile” would be a good task for a committee.
Create a Committee Charter
Start with a good structure. A “committee charter,” established by the board, outlines the parameters and expectations for a committee. Without a clear sense of direction or scope of authority, committees can lose control and cease to function effectively. Boards should take time to draft a concise committee charter with all of the following elements:
Purpose. Give the committee a clear purpose. Is the purpose of the committee to provide the board with a recommendation on an issue? Is the purpose of the committee to carry out a specific task?
Product. Tell the committee what you expect them to produce. Is it a detailed recommendation to the board? If so, what must be included in the recommendation? Will the committee take some sort of action on behalf of the board? If so, be very clear about the action the committee is expected to take, and establish clear limits. Remember that a board may delegate authority to act, but cannot delegate responsibility for the action.
Timeframe. Tell the committee how long their services are needed. Is the committee to meet during a period of six weeks or a year? Is the committee a standing committee that will meet until the governing documents are amended or until the board takes action to dissolve the committee?
Budget. If the committee will need money to fulfill their charter, be clear about the amount of money available to the committee. You should also be clear about the process the committee should go through to obtain the funds. If the committee is not being provided with funds, tell them.
Reporting. Establish how the committee should report to the board. Committees making recommendations or decisions must communicate their findings to the board. Be clear about the frequency and method of those reports. Decision-making committees must produce minutes.
Pick the Right People
HOA owners have a wide array of talents – a clear resource for the board. But each person also has a different levels of energy and skill, along with a unique agenda and temperament. Boards must balance each of those elements when they select the members of a committee.
Boards should seek out people with important skills: CPAs for the budget committee, landscape architects for the landscaping committee, and natural leaders as committee chairs. But avoid placing a destructive personality on a committee – even skilled ones. Vocal owners with a clear agenda are not necessarily destructive, and may bring energy and focus to the committee. But individuals whose disposition will prevent the committee from functioning or will ignore the committee charter are not good candidates.
Boards may also wish to appoint a “board liaison” to attend committee meetings periodically. The liaison can provide helpful background information to the committee, and can help the committee stay on track in the early stages. However, the liaison should be careful not to dominate or take over the work of the committee.
Open or Closed Committee Meetings?
For committee meetings, the Davis-Stirling Act does not require notice, posted agendas, minutes (except for decision-making committees), or open attendance. However, committees should not be used inappropriately to hide information from the membership.
Open Meetings. Committees with decision-making authority (such as architectural control committees) should give notice and hold open meetings. Committees may also periodically seek out input from the community. And if the committee members contain a quorum of the board, the meeting is subject to the provisions of the Open Meeting Act.
Closed Meetings. Disciplinary committees (sometimes called “rules committees”) should not be open to members, even if they have authority to enforce rules; members have the right to preserve their privacy in certain circumstances. Similarly, advisory committees who are conducting research and working on a recommendation for the board should not be compelled to have open meetings. However, recommendations to the board should be communicated and discussed at an open board meeting.
Say thank you! Recognition and appreciation for a committee’s input and hard work will lead to successful committees and enthusiastic members. Don’t overlook the effectiveness of a simple thank- you note, an acknowledgment in the community newsletter, or a plaque presented at an annual meeting. Committees whose contributions are acknowledged are more willing to give their time and effort to their association.
Committees Take Work
Committees perform an important function that extends beyond their charters: committees encourage camaraderie, participation, efficiency, and a sense of belonging in the community – but only if the board lays a solid foundation for each group. If the board is willing to do the work, your community can enjoy the benefits that committees provide.
Thank you to Molly Foley-Healy and Susan Green for their contributions to this article. Molly Foley-Healy is an attorney at the Colorado association law firm Winzenburg, Leff, Purvis & Payn in Denver Colorado. At the time this article was written, she was associated with the law firm HindmanSanchez also located in Colorado. Susan Green was formerly the Northern California area manager for The Merit Companies, a statewide management company.