Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Everything is Great. Why Change?

I love Radburn. I love the street that I live on, which is next to our cozy little R-park. I love my neighbors and the amazing friendships that we've formed over the years. I love that my children are growing up believing that everyone lives by a park, walks (or gets driven) to school and has neighborhood pools with a swim team. I'm sure they believe that summertime play groups with night swims and camp outs exist everywhere, and a once-a-year blow-out block party weekend with tons of activities, dancing and music is just what people do. I am so proud to live in Radburn and be fortunate enough to raise our children in this incredible community that I couldn't imagine living anywhere else.

So why change anything? Everything is wonderfully perfect. Why mess around with that?

Radburn, as a National Historic Landmark, is truly a gem. Radburn, as a supportive community where people of varied backgrounds choose to volunteer their time to run programs and events that benefit residents of all ages, is once again truly a gem. But Radburn has issues. When you peel back the layers one soon discovers that while there are differing views by those who live here about how the community should be run, where money should be invested, and what type of management should be in place, there are a select few who also wield considerable power to ensure that their ideas are never challenged, and that their "people" are always taken care of.

Wait, what? What does that even mean? How can some people always retain power and take care of their friends? Isn't that a form of cronyism?

Yes. Yes it is.

Ok, but so what? As long as people are happy and the amenities are maintained, what's the big deal if the board behaves in a somewhat secretive fashion and takes care of its own?

That's an interesting question. Would people really care about how the board of trustees functions and how Radburn is governed if everything was being run really well and residents' issues were being addressed swiftly and without prejudice? What if the manager and the office were truly proactive about communicating with residents honestly, and were sincerely concerned about fostering a service minded culture amongst their employees?

Would people really care about the nomination process and system of governance?

What if residents' input was taken seriously by the board and thoughtfully discussed, deliberated, and then decided by trustees who's mission it is to not only provide proper stewardship of the Association's affairs, but to also encourage residents to reach out to the board to discuss matters of importance, knowing that trustees will consider all input seriously and will respond to residents professionally and courteously? What if the board operated with full transparency and consulted with the community before making decisions that would dramatically impact people's lives? What if the board demanded that each trustee attend a workshop to learn about the responsibility, ethics, legality, and commitment of serving on a board? What if trustees actually held each other accountable so that any perceived abuse of power, conflict of interest, or favors for friends would be addressed and dealt with before becoming a problem?

Would people really care about the nomination process and system of governance?

What if the manager and office staff were consistently trained and held to high standards of service? What if the manager was approachable, honest, helpful, and truly had all residents' interests in mind, regardless of who they are? What if there was a way to solicit feedback from residents that would shed light on things being done well while also uncovering areas for improvement (like emptying dog poop cans more often in the summer)?

What if the parks, pools, tennis courts, gardens, pathways, baseball field, tot lots and playgrounds were maintained in impeccable condition all the time; and programs were constantly being introduced and made available to residents throughout the year? What if the Grange was the crown jewel of our community - a resident-only recreation center that was ADA compliant and was a center for activities that residents of all ages could enjoy year round?

What if things were so good, with so many top notch programs for residents of all ages; with high quality service and honest, consistent communication from the board and manager, that there was really nothing to complain about except not having enough time to enjoy all the amenities?

Would people really be so adamant about changing the governance structure and nomination procedure?

I can't answer for everyone. But I probably wouldn't have an issue with it.





Saturday, January 30, 2016

Radical Naiveté

Radical
adjective  rad·i·cal  \ˈra-di-kəl\
:  favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions
:  advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs 

Naiveté
noun  na·ïve·té  \nä-ˌēv-ˈtā, -ˌē-və-; nä-ˈēv-ˌtā, -ˈē-və-; nī-\

:  deficient in worldly wisdom or informed judgment


FAIR LAWN COUNCIL WORK SESSION OF DECEMBER 1, 2009
http://www.fairlawn.org/filestorage/265/702/716/724/MC20091201.ws.pdf

Michael Alyania (sp), said that he moved to Radburn in 2008 and he noted that the current structure of government is not illegal according to the Courts. Many are complaining about the form of government in Radburn and Mr. Alyania (sp) reminded everyone that they are not forced to live here. The form of government is sound and legal and represents a spirit of volunteerism and not politics. Mr. Alyania (sp) commented that those who are complaining about the increased dues as a result of legal fees are the ones who sued the Association in the first place and have no reason to complain. He said that the Council should allow Radburn to deal with its own issues and should not be involved.

Michael Alyania (sp), referred to the comment that the sale of Daly Field is what has sparked this debate. He said that he has done research and has spoken to a lot of people to try to understand the circumstances leading to that decision. He learned that the decision of the Board of Trustees was not made in an open way, however, they felt that they were acting in the best interests of Radburn. Mistakes were made which they have admitted and everyone must remember that this group has governed itself for 80 years without incident and everyone needs to come together and decide how to govern going forward. 

Those comments above are mine. I own them. But I am going on record right here to say that I was wrong to suggest that people who aren't happy with the governance structure should move out of Radburn. That remark was insensitive, ill-informed, and insulting. If I could go back and withdraw that statement, I would. But since I cannot, I would like to ask those that were hurt by my words to please accept my sincere apology. 

Allow me to explain. 

My family and I had just moved to Radburn and I was convinced early on that anyone who questioned the sanctity and structure of a system of governance that has been in place for more than eighty years must simply be wrong. The supporters of the status quo, myself included, were radicals in the sense that we advocated for retaining our established system of governance without giving much thought to any sort of alternative solution. This included writing to the Fair Lawn council and speaking out at public work sessions to express our firm position. There I was, a new resident of eighteen months staunchly supporting and defending the "way it's always been" without having any significant experience of 'being' and 'living' in this community. It may have been radical naiveté, but I truly believed that this quixotic, apolitical structure was something that could never (or would never) be abused. It stood to reason in my mind that a system based not on politics, but solely on pure volunteerism by individuals who have been involved in various facets within the community, was an ideal concept not to be trifled with. So when it came time to speak up and be heard, I refused to hold back. 

As a result of being actively involved in the community (i.e. attending RCA meetings, volunteering for various events, speaking out in support of the BOT, etc.), I was asked by a trustee if I would be interested in submitting my name to be considered for the ballot. I felt honored to be presented with that opportunity and, after discussing it with my wife, agreed to submit my name. I made it onto the ballot that year but did not get elected. Two years later I was asked to run again for the 2012 election, which again I agreed to do, and was fortunate enough to be elected to the board that year.

My experience serving as a trustee was invigorating and rewarding at times, disappointing and frustrating at other times, and extremely educational. People's true colors have a way of shining through when there are dissenting view points and areas of conflict, and I learned a lot about the character, principles, and civic-minded philosophies of not only my fellow trustees, but also the manager, and even myself. I also came to the realization that there are two particular types of forces at play that determine the effectiveness of a board. The first force is political will, which consists of strength of character, can-do attitude, deference and willingness to seek compromise. When this is the predominant force, boards are very successful in achieving goals and attaining a favorable review by their stakeholders. The second type of force is self preservation, which consists of groupthink culture, dogmatic attitude, and unyielding hubris. When this is the predominant force, boards end up making many poor and/or dubious decisions, are typically unwilling to admit mistakes, and are reluctant to change their behavior. These types of boards tend to not have high satisfaction ratings among their stakeholders

If the force of political will is stronger than the force of self preservation, the board will be highly functional and the governance structure would be considered by many to be sound. However, if the force of self preservation is the dominant force, then eventually residents will become dissatisfied by the board's performance and will demand change. The issue with the Radburn structure is systemic. The process does not allow for the removal of trustees by unit-owner residents, either in a recall election or with open nominations of candidates. As a result, all residents are at the mercy of the system and can only hope that the board will eventually be comprised of people with strong character, conviction and political will.     

Suffice it to say that the three years I spent as a trustee, in addition to certain events that transpired between the board and myself after my term was over, had reshaped my opinions as to the efficacy and wisdom of the current system of governance. If Radburn is to change and evolve from within, it will take a board with significant political will to lead the way. Absent of that occurrence, it will only be a matter of time before the law mandates it.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

Lobbyist Controversy Discussed at RCA Meeting

The controversy over the Radburn Board of Trustees' secret hiring of a lobbyist was the headlining event at Wednesday night's RCA meeting. The club room at the Grange was packed with what appeared to be more than fifty residents, including some current and former trustees. And there was no shortage of opinions, history lessons, and statements of fact being shared and discussed.

Overture

At the outset of the meeting, RCA President, Jill Davis, and her officers handed out name tags and encouraged everyone to sign in and participate. Jill opened the meeting by stating that the letter she sent to the community in early January regarding NJ Bill A469 and the engagement of a lobbyist by the RA was criticized by some residents and board members as being one-sided. Her response to that criticism was that she felt the RCA took a neutral position on the subject and that it is the duty of the RCA President to represent the entire community and keep all residents informed.

The next thirty minutes were allocated to standing agenda items and committee reports, such as sports & recreation and community events. One resident brought up how nice the new tennis courts are but wondered if it was wise to leave the nets up all winter, especially after new nets were just installed. It was agreed that the office should be informed about that. The dialogue committee was also briefly discussed, and Joy Bradway, committee Chair, read the mission statement and summarized the goals and purpose of the committee. Information will be posted to the RCA Facebook page.

Discovery

The topic that was on the minds of all who were in attendance was the legislative bill (A469) and the controversial actions taken by the trustees in response to it. Eric Schutz began the conversation by presenting a summary of the bill and what it sought to achieve. There was also a hand out, that some residents who are in support of the bill collaborated on, called "36 Things You Need to Know About Radburn." This Q&A document is also available on a website called Radburn United and addresses questions such as "Who is in charge of the Radburn Association" and "Did the board have a right to hire a lobbyist without disclosure to the community." 

It is not an overstatement to say that practically all residents who were in attendance were confused and upset by the actions of the board. Some recounted stories of years past when the board behaved in similar fashion by failing to consult with the community about the sale of Daly Field. Ron Coll even presented the New York Times article from 1987 where Don Morris, then President of the RA, stated that residents wouldn't be ignored on the eventual fate of Daly Field. In that article, Mr. Morris was quoted as saying ''Nothing will be done without input from residents. It'll be done as a community, not by the board of trustees. We're not Tammany Hall." 

The secretive decision by the board to hire a lobbyist, followed by their hubristic defiance to not acknowledge their error and apologize for that action, was a stark reminder of the Daly Field days for those who lived through it, and was a serious wake up call to new residents of the unfettered power of the board of trustees. "We're told that we have $4 million in investments with UBS, but we aren't allowed to see the performance reports. I guess we're just supposed to trust that it's there", someone quipped. "Regardless of what anyone thinks about the bill, the trustees decided to spend our money without our knowledge, and I'm not ok with that", said another resident. 

"Privileged information cannot be both public and private", said Craig Lechner. "If the board can claim attorney-client privilege when information was clearly available to the public, what's to stop them from claiming that same privilege on everything they do? What else don't we know about", he asked.  Ron Coll expanded on that question by explaining that attorney-client privilege is designed to protect the client, not the attorney. If the Radburn attorney advised the trustees to claim attorney-client privilege as a reason to not disclose to residents the contract with the lobbyist, then the board might want to rethink their relationship with that attorney, he suggested.

This dialogue seemed to illustrate the main theme of the discussion: What recourse do residents have when trustees breach the trust of the community they are supposed to represent? 

Presentation

On the flip side, one resident took the board's point of view and asked if anyone knew when the bill was brought to the NJ Legislature. The suggestion being that those who were responsible for doing that did so without anyone else knowing, ergo those people should also be held accountable. June Meyerson was quick to counter that allusion by explaining that the courts specifically instructed the plaintiffs of the Moore v Radburn case to petition the legislature if they wanted any possibility of reform; which is exactly what they did. When asked again when this occurred, Eric Schutz explained that the records are publicly available on the NJ Legislature site, and anyone can search for all types of bills that were introduced in various legislative sessions. 
*As a side note, the bill was originally introduced in 2011 under A4080.

The conversation quickly became focused specifically on the bill itself and questions were buzzing about why the trustees would be willing to spend so much money in order to fight it. After a lot of back and forth on that, Lou DiGeronimo spoke up and presented another question: "What is the ultimate gain that we, as residents, are getting by the RA trying to defeat this law?" To him and many others in the community, the action taken by the board to secretly hire a lobbyist is a blatant misuse of funds, since it seems to only benefit a select minority who are already members. He went on to say that if the board does not dismiss the lobbyist, he will file a criminal complaint against the Radburn Association since the decision to enter into the contract without an open voting meeting was not only for the trustees' personal gain, but was also a violation of New Jersey law.

Marion Paganello, the Vice President of the board, was in attendance and took offense to that assertion. She said that the board is made up of volunteers who serve the community and the idea of "personal gain" was very pejorative. "I am hopeful that we can all come to an understanding so another lawsuit could be avoided", she concluded. Mr. DiGeronimo quickly retorted that a criminal lawsuit is much different from a civil lawsuit, and he would personally see to it that the board is held accountable if they don't cancel the contract. Residents also remained skeptical of the board and their motivations. "Personal gain doesn't have to be only about money", one resident proclaimed. "It can also be about power."

Grand Finale 

The comments and questions by the majority of people in attendance suggested that residents were not only in support of substantive change - be it in the form of legislative mandate or self correction by the board - but were angry at the current state of relations between the board and residents. It was brought up that Radburn is the only community in New Jersey that has a two class system of dues-paying unit owners, and this simple fact has led many to question the future viability of maintaining this status quo. 

As with any home-owner association community, there is obviously no panacea to avoid disputes between residents and management. It's bound to happen from time to time. But to support the claim that the Radburn system of governance is not broken or not easily manipulated or is functioning just fine, is to be either unconcerned for the future well being of this community, or simply ignorant to the current state of affairs.

As summed up by a resident at the conclusion of the meeting, "It's time to bring Radburn into the 21st century."


Thursday, January 14, 2016

The (what should have been) Letter From The Radburn Association

There was some confusion this week about a letter that residents received on Radburn stationary which was signed by Scott Bray, the President of the Radburn Board of Trustees. It was confusing because when Scott spoke to the residents that attended the open voting meeting on January 4th, he spoke of a much different type of letter that was supposed to be sent out, even suggesting that a "mea culpa" would be included. Below is what I believe was intended to be written.

Dear Radburn Residents,

Within the past two weeks there has been some incredibly accurate information circulating within our community regarding legislation before the NJ State Senate (not Assembly) under Bill A469. I am writing to explain why the Board thought it was in the best interest of our community to be represented in Trenton without disclosing or acknowledging the fact that we are spending Association money on a lobbyist. If passed, this legislation would directly impact our community.

Bill A469 was brought to our attention in September of 2015. The bill had been in the works for many months under the sponsorship of two members of the NJ Assembly and was pre-filed in February 2014. It is our responsibility, as Trustees, to inform all residents about any legislation that will affect Radburn. However, we failed to do that. Rather than conduct an open meeting and invite residents to attend while we discussed and voted on whether or not a lobbyist should be hired to represent our interests, we decided that it would be in the Board's best interest to not bring unwanted attention to this matter. In hind sight, we messed up. We not only violated the Radburn Association By-Laws, but we also violated NJ State law by not conducting a public vote related to entering into a contract with a professional services firm. This was our mistake and we are asking the community to forgive us.

Our By-Laws are available to you in the "Residents area" of our website, Radburn.org. If you would like to see the full text of the bill that passed the Assembly in June 2015, please visit http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2014/Bills/A0500/469_I1.PDF. You can also find additional information on www.radburnresident.info, a website that was created and is currently managed by a resident and former Trustee, which contains information germane to the way our community is governed. We really should have this information on our official site, but we simply just haven't done a good job with that.

Please know that we sincerely regret our failings in communicating more effectively with the community. Our leadership has been lacking, but I intend to make sure we do a better job of it this year. While we, as a Board, have had many achievements that we scarcely communicated to anyone this year, it is also true that we have had many misses as well. Below is a list of our hits and misses that we would like to acknowledge and share.

Hits:
  • Establishment of an investment policy ensuring the financial security of The Radburn Association into the future.
  • Allocation of $200,000 from the sale of Daly Field to reduce the 2016 Annual Fund charge to all Radburn residents.
  • Resurfacing the tennis courts and installing new nets.
  • Installation of 13 new park benches across A and B parks (sorry R park).
  • Expansion of Playgroup to accommodate over 180 children of our residents.
Misses:
  • Sent a Cease and Desist letter to a former Trustee and resident who built a website to help keep our community better informed. We couldn't get it done in 18 months and he did it over a weekend. We should have just called him up to talk with him about it, but we were embarrassed and pissed off so we did something regretful - and spent about $8,000 in attorney fees to boot.
  • Engaged in deceptive tactics to keep the community from knowing about NJ Bill A469 and, even after being asked a direct question about whether or not a lobbyist was hired, chose to not answer the question by hiding behind a documents policy that didn't even apply in this situation.
  • While it's true that the tennis courts were resurfaced, we failed to hold the manager accountable for making them unavailable to residents, and Playgroup, for the entire summer before a contractor was even hired.
  • Communication with residents has been shamefully bad. Even though we have a functional website, we just can't seem to figure out a way to make it useful by updating it on a regular basis. We're going to make that happen this year. 

We hope you forgive us for the poor job we've done of keeping the best interests of all residents in mind throughout our decision making process. Our goal for 2016 is to bring our community together by listening to, respecting, and communicating with all residents. Your feedback is important to us. Please email the office about any and all concerns you have so we can be sure to address them during our monthly work sessions.


Sincerely,

The President of the Radburn Board of Trustees


Monday, December 28, 2015

Radburn Association Board Secretly Hires Lobbyist

After conducting some investigative research, I was recently able to verify that the Board of Trustees, in a closed work session, decided to hire a lobbyist to oppose NJ Bill A469which concerns membership and management of homeowners associations and common interest communities

Upon learning of this development, the first question that I could think to ask is why? Why would the Trustees agree to spend money to oppose a legislative bill that would specifically define "member" as being a unit owner in a common interest community (CIC)? Wasn't it the Trustees of years past (and most residents as well) who complained about all the money the Radburn Association was forced to spend in order to defend itself against a lawsuit that was brought about after the sale of Daly Field? Aren't there other and more beneficial uses for how that money could be spent? 


Now maybe you're thinking to yourself, "You know what, they have every right to oppose that bill. The Radburn Association spent years in litigation and well over $1 million in legal fees to defend itself against the lawsuit, so why shouldn't the Trustees do whatever they can to protect that victory?" I would say that you have a valid position. However, I would then ask if it doesn't seem even a little suspicious that this decision was made behind the backs of all residents? 


The point here is that regardless of how anyone feels about a law that would confer membership to all unit owners of a CIC, the Trustees nevertheless hid this action from the community. One would think that the outrage that ensued after the sale of Daly Field would be a poignant reminder to the Trustees of what could happen when information is purposely withheld from the community. After all, if opposing this bill is truly in the best interest for all residents, then why try to hide it? Why not proudly state that the Radburn Association is prepared to take the fight to the NJ Senate to preserve our way of closed nominations and restricted participation of volunteer governance?

I don't know the answers to those questions, but I was able to uncover some facts after speaking with the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission. It was explained to me that all lobbyists are required to submit quarterly reports to this commission, which includes the names of each lobbyist firm, the clients that their firm represents, and the purpose for which they are lobbying. The Radburn Association is currently being represented by Public Strategies Impact, who's registration number is 433.
 

Public Strategies Impact (www.njpsi.com) was hired by the Radburn Association in September at a monthly rate of $5,000. I spoke with a representative at the firm who confirmed the monthly cost and the date of engagement. The contract is open ended which means that the expenditure for 2016 could reach $60,000. The RA has already spent $20,000 in 2015 on this professional service.


Earlier in December I had asked the officers of the Board by way of email if they could confirm whether or not a lobbyist was indeed hired. I explained that I had heard that a lobbyist was hired and that, if true, residents should be informed since we all have a right to know how our money is being spent. 


The response to my inquiry, as communicated by Scott Bray, was this: "The information you requested on December 13th is outside the scope of our access to Records and Documents policy."

For the record, NJ law specifically states that "All meetings at which a board takes a binding vote are required by law to be open to all owners and advance written notice of such meetings must be given as provided by law." [ ] "Examples of actions that require open meetings are: the adoption of an annual budget, the certification of any elections, hiring or terminating an employee, enacting or changing a rule or entering into a contract."

To be clear, no public vote or public discussion regarding this decision ever took place.


To learn more about the Board's position or to address any other questions you may have, please contact the office.
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Find more information below about your rights as homeowners in a common interest community.

State of NJ Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA)