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President – In Name Or Reality?

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People in my building always ask: when are they having elections for president.  They don’t get it, after all this time. They think it’s like the real world where the voice of the populace is what counts – sorry, I almost forgot about that electoral college.

In most buildings it doesn’t work that way.  Owners get to vote for directors, and then the directors, usually no more then six or seven strong, get to pick the officers in secret. Often the selection of president has more to do with who has the most friends on board, than who’s most qualified. Then maybe it’s exactly like real world politics.

This can be a real problem if there are two camps split equally down the middle – the building could be left without a leader.  If that happens, the sponsor representative may be called upon to break the impasse, only usually minority sponsors don’t even come to meetings and don’t want to get enmeshed with internal politics so they wait on the sidelines till the last minute, hoping the resident board members will see reason before they kill each other. And eventually, like that white plume of smoke announcing a new pope, a notice will be posted announcing a new president.

Maybe a notice has just been tacked on your building’s bulletin board declaring the new president, and the other officers. You should take this information with something of a grain of salt. The fact that someone is president in name doesn’t mean he’s president in reality.

The same is true for other officers.  I’ve been on boards where the “secretary” got her cohorts to elect her so she could call Special Meetings in case she wanted to oust opposition directors, though she couldn’t draft a minute to save her life. I just got an email from a newly installed minority director elected by the majority to be treasurer of his Forest Hills co-op , only without the power to sign checks – a form of fiscal emasculation that I suspect is of questionable legality,

But people focus on the president because they think he or she is the one in charge.  Based on my years of experience, both as a participant and observer of the system, there are a number of other possibilities:

  • Absentee Ruler: At one end of the spectrum are those who aren’t even there. I was just told about someone who hasn’t lived in – but nevertheless has been president of – his Gramercy Park co-op for a decade.  This is the exception because most co-ops, as opposed to condos, require that directors also be occupants of the building. 
  • Passive-Aggressive Poser: Some are pretenders who don’t know much and do even less, except to announce every so often that they have the power to unilaterally make decisions on issues they haven’t even weighed in on.
  • Power Behind the Throne: To the outside world Macbeth was King, but his wife  was the real force who got him to do things she wanted done. These kinds of opportunistic alliances exist on boards, allowing the real power to remain under the radar while carrying out his agenda though a puppet president
  • ICaesar or Caesarette: At the other end of the spectrum is the president who thinks his majority of one, entitles him to ignore the votes of everyone else on the board. Unless the other board members push back — which they don’t always do — you may find yourselves living under a modern day emperor.
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