Democracy and Condo Meetings: Lessons Learned

Well, no big complaints lingering from the weekend. The weather in NE Ohio has been mild enough that I was able to hit the concrete for five miles both Saturday and Sunday mornings. But the highlight came Sunday afternoon at the annual meeting of my condominium association. It’s democracy practiced at the grass roots — and it ain’t pretty, or even that effective.

Hey, it’s just like the spectacle we see — and complain about — Inside the Beltway. Just sayin’.

I was chuckling about the meeting again this morning, considering just how difficult it is to actually accomplish anything in government, business, education — or with a small group of your neighbors and fellow association members.

As background, I live in a condo complex of some 63 units. The complex is about 20 years old — and that means it’s time for repairs to roofs, roads and so on. And that means assessments — and difficult decisions about how to allocate limited financial resources. The governing body consists of three unpaid volunteer trustees — all owners. I served my time a few years ago — and I’m sure my blood pressure will return to normal at some point.

Anyway, Obama and team are having a tough time with health care reform, creating jobs, clawing back Wall Street bonuses and so on. And the lessons from my condo association meeting might help explain why it is so difficult to gain consensus — and act for the common good, nationally or locally.

  • People act primarily out of self-interest. In effect, everyone is a lobbyist.
  • The relationship between increased services and increased expenses is not (apparently) easily understood.
  • The complex has many mature trees — but no money tree as best I can tell. That requires some tough decisions related to point two above.
  • Communication is difficult at best — no matter how hard an organization tries, or the size of the audience.
  • Change is something we all talk about — but most don’t enthusiastically embrace.
  • It’s hard to engage people — even when their own self-interest is involved.  We need 51 percent of the owners to attend the meeting — or return a proxy — to conduct business. Ten minutes after the scheduled start, and following a few frantic phone calls, we managed to get to — drum roll, please — 51 percent. Woot.

Oh well. That takes care of condo business for the next year at which time we will reconvene for another exercise in grass-roots democracy.

Wonder what will happen to health care in the meantime?

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