Over the many years I have been writing this column, the clear number one ranked dispute between homeowners and their associations regards records and information access. These disputes are never productive, and generally avoidable. Here are some tips for HOAs regarding producing requested records and some tips for requesting homeowners.
The law has improved dramatically in recent years in this regard. Civil Code 5200 provides a very clear list of what are “association records” which members may request. However, battles continue, and unfortunately HOAs sometimes control the flow of information from critics, and some homeowners use records demands as a weapon. When a board is under severe criticism it is a natural impulse to be defensive and close ranks, but the board cannot refuse a legitimate document request just because it expects the information to be used against it. The more a board stalls or resists providing reasonably requested documents, the higher the suspicion of the requestor that the board “has something to hide.” In my experience, that is almost never the case – but ego and pride is usually the problem.
The increasingly common use of HOA web sites presents a great opportunity to provide required transparency with little expense. If the association instituted a habit of making sure that all “association records” for the current year and previous 2 years (the time limit of the statute) are routinely posted on the members only section of the web site, members could access anything they had a right to see without inconveniencing the manager or board.
What do members NOT have the right to inspect? Correspondence, member disciplinary matters, pending bids or draft contracts, and member delinquency information are examples of items which are not “association records” subject to inspection.
Homeowners, here is what NOT to do when requesting records.
Don’t ask for more than the current year and the two prior years. You probably don’t really want to see decades of records anyway.
Don’t just parrot the categories of Civil Code Section 5200 – do you seek a specific contract or paid bill? Make a real request, and you’re more likely to receive a real response.
Don’t demand management investigate a topic for you. The statute allows inspection of existing documents and does not compel the creation of a document. These very specific requests which are trying to force the manager to study something for them.
Don’t punish the HOA with repeated huge document demands. Even though the management cannot pass along to the requestor all its costs in responding, the HOA is still likely incurring extra management expense.
Show some grace regarding the deadlines. The person responding to your document request is either a volunteer in the self-managed association or is a frequently overloaded manager.
Keep it professional and neighborly. Civil Code Section 5235 allows lawsuits to be filed against the HOA in small claims court. If your first focus is on a fight, and you are anxious to take your neighbors to court, you may be a destructive influence in your HOA. Boards must remember the members are not merely stockholders but are neighbors, and members must remember that the board consists of neighbors.
This should never be a point of conflict. Work together – neither of you are the enemy.
Kelly G. Richardson Esq., CCAL, is a Fellow of the College of Community Association Lawyers and a Partner of Richardson | Ober | DeNichilo LLP, a California law firm known for community association advice. Submit questions to Kelly@rodllp.com. Past columns at www.HOAHomefront.com. All rights reserved®.