The Perils and Pitfalls of Running a Blog Against the Board

People get frustrated, angry, and disillusioned with authority figures, movie stars, famous people and sometimes friends and family. The internet has become a popular place to vent. I have heard from homeowners who would like to start a blog and comment on board action (or inaction) in the HOA. Here is a set of popular questions:

“Do you think you could do a blog on the ‘’perils and pitfalls’’ of a homeowner starting a blog to counter what has become nothing more than propaganda for a board member’s agenda.”

I can, I have, and I will again. I last (in a blog) addressed a lawsuit against an owner in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Here is the “opener” of his “Press Release”:

PRESS RELEASE – FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Gatlinburg, Tennessee Home Owners Association Files $1 Million Lawsuit
Against Blog Author and Property Owner
A Tennessee Home Owners Association has filed a $1 million lawsuit against one of its property owners for defamation, libel, slander, and false light invasion of privacy.  The property owner, Robert Goodman, has operated a blog that has heavily criticized the actions of the HOA’s general manager and board of directors for alleged violations of both its own HOA controlling documents and Tennessee state law. The HOA board has filed the lawsuit in an attempt to force virtually all content to be removed from the blog and prevent any new entries.”  The website where this owner touts his claims was provided to me sometime ago. I have not visited the website, but here it is for the curious: www.DeerRidgeOwners.com

This probably illustrates the worst possible of the pitfalls, getting sued for what you say. If you do speak out at the board whether in a meeting, a letter, or publicly, I suggest that you stick to the facts, the ones that you can prove. Why? Truth is a defense to a defamation claim.

“The minutes of what passes for an open board meeting (in reality, a town hall meeting!) are full of comments by board members and homeowners, slanted to suit a particular agenda. They know that minutes are supposed to be a record of what a board does and not opinions, etc., but they do it anyway.”

Minutes that reflect “comments” can get a board into trouble. The purpose of minutes is to record attendance, quorum, and business that takes place. I assume the reader raises this as one area about which he or she may decide to blog. Unless the owner attends all the meetings, it will be hard to comment upon whether the minutes reflect what took place, and saying more than “the board should make every effort to exclude unnecessary commentary in the minutes” or “I believe that it is unprofessional to include biased comments in the minutes” or something like that, I cannot see how being critical of this will help.

I would like to start my own blog to counter some of their outrageous claims. Would I be putting myself at risk? I certainly know to not attack individuals or make any false claims. Anything I would put in writing would have documentation behind it.”

This indicates that thought is being given to making sure that claims are backed by evidence. Even in this scenario, it does not stop people from suing for defamation claims, or for threatening to do so. Boards do not like to be criticized and especially do not like having their shortcomings or mistakes published. For purposes of attempting some form of harmony in an association (as discourse, drama and political strife take their tolls), I usually suggest taking issues directly to the board before airing them publicly, to see if there is room for discussion or resolution. Perhaps this has already occurred in this situation. I cannot tell. 

Most homeowners are oblivious to what goes on, and they would probably like to stay that way. But it is frustrating to see so much misinformation passed out in the minutes.”

I would venture to day that most homeowners are not only oblivious, but happily so. Many times when an owner stirs up the pot, he or she ends up being criticized or ostracized for vocalizing dissatisfaction. However, cold hard facts and especially wild or negligent spending is one subject that can attract allies, if presented in the right way. I do not know what the nature of the “misinformation” the writer feels is occurring is legitimate or is due to the perception or perspective of the owner who wrote to me. To take an example, a homeowner might feel a board is wasting money, and say so, and the board comes back with justification for expenditures that were necessary because of forces outside the board’s control, such as unanticipated discovery of dry rot during a siding project, or the like.

I know I have the right to ask for a membership list to use for upcoming voting on amendments to our CC&Rs and elections, but mailing is pretty expensive. Posting on our bulletin boards would be torn down within hours.”

I agree that these forms of communication can be expensive. It’s easy and cheap to blast someone on the internet, assuming of course you do not experience any backlash. Backlash can come in many forms, for example retaliatory public criticism and retaliatory enforcement actions, and of course in the form of a lawsuit for defamation.

Any suggestions would be very welcome.”

Before jumping into a critical mode and considering public “flogging”, try to run for the board, volunteer for a committee, or do some kind of service that will help you achieve your goals, whatever they are. Try to find allies, get others to become more involved, and gather as much information as you can in your endeavors to hold the board accountable. Or try to sell your place.

Why? Because public criticism rarely changes things, and jumping into the blogging environment does hold serious pitfalls. People tend to treat it informally and engage in knee jerk reactionary posts. And those on the other end of the criticism sometimes respond in ways that are overboard or very inappropriate.

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3 Responses to The Perils and Pitfalls of Running a Blog Against the Board
  1. Douglas Wilkie
    November 23, 2010 | 7:42 pm

    Perhaps off-topic other than to get your take on the legal authority of the Board to increase (or decrease) monthly dues based upon a 29-year miscalculation of those dues. Apparently, the CC&Rs require that some association expenses be calculated on a ‘unit fractional interest’ (i.e., unit type based on square footage), while others are assessed pro-rata (based on the number of units in the project ).

    The management company has, to its credit, discovered this recurring error. However, they claim that records are missing, thus obviating the Board’s legal exposure. The net result of these errors is a re-calibrating of maintenance fees to the substantial financial detriment of one unit type (of which there are four in the project) and to the advantage of another. The other two unit types have are only subject to minimal adjustments (roughly $7 per month).

    Have you experienced such an egregious violation of the CC&Rs, committed by past management companies (the HOA fiduciary)?

    • Beth Grimm
      December 2, 2010 | 5:19 am

      I have seen this kind of mistake. I would have concerns about going back 29 years to correct such an error. In California, there is a 4 year statute on contracts that I have seen applied to CC&R assessment obligations to limit collection of assessments going back more than 4 years. I am not sure all attorneys would agree but you asked for my experience and I have in similar cases recommended the 4 year limit .

    • Beth Grimm
      December 18, 2010 | 5:11 am

      I have seen all kinds of mistakes including this kind. If an HOA is miscalculating assessments, it will often go on for years until someone discovers the error. Sometimes it’s a new manager, sometimes an owner, and sometimes the error goes on until an attorney points out the error when the board engages in a restatement project. Sometimes the error is noted by the accountant or a reserve study preparer. Nobody is perfect, and in many HOAs few are paying close attention to anything, and even fewer read the CC&Rs. They are not very much fun to read, but they are after all the main regulating document for the association and are very important. They list the rights of owners and obligations of the Board.