As difficult as it is for me to believe I have been the Common Interest Community Ombudsman for more than ten years now, it is even more difficult to believe I have also aged ten years. Of course, ombudsman years are different than human years, so I have probably aged 15 years over that ten-year period. What has hastened my aging process? As a one-person office, the 15, 519 phone calls, the 19, 316 emails, and the 2,515 Complaints and Notices of Final Adverse Decisions I have addressed over the past ten years. Add on to that nearly 100 presentations, roughly 70 Common Interest Community Board and Committee meetings and countless hours spent at the General Assembly.
During this time, my office also witnessed the enactment of the Common Interest Community Ombudsman Regulations (Regulations) which required every common interest community in Virginia to adopt an association complaint procedure. The association complaint procedure is intended to address violations of common interest community law and not violations of the association’s governing documents. September 28, 2012 was the drop-dead date for adoption of a complaint procedure after the regulations were enacted on July 1, 2012. Yet, even now, nearly seven years since the regulations were enacted, many associations have failed to adopt complaint procedures. As we work toward one hundred percent compliance with the Regulations, my office provides ongoing guidance to associations as they adopt complaint procedures and I help both owners and board members understand what constitutes an association complaint and what it means to implement a complaint process.
Association complaints, after moving through the association complaint procedure, can become Notices of Final Adverse Decision (NFADs), which are essentially appeals on the decision an association has provided in its final determination on an association complaint. Over the years, the most common complaints included in NFADs are complaints related to access to the books and records of an association; no notice of meetings; improper budgeting for reserves or no reserve study; disclosure packets that lack required information or are not provided to the seller in the required time-frame; and a lack of a method of communication within an association.
Based on the last ten years of Annual Reports that my office has provided to the General Assembly, the same complaints appear again and again. I believe the reason we see the same complaints repeatedly is that most of the complaints in the list above are related to transparency by an association board of directors. It has been my experience that whether the perception is right or wrong, any time owners believe there is a failure to provide or maintain transparency, complaints will be filed. I also believe that complaints will be submitted when an owner feels that he or she has no voice and is not being heard or understood by the Board of Directors or Management Company of an association.
After more than a decade of service to the Commonwealth of Virginia as the Common Interest Community Ombudsman is there a particular lesson that I have learned and consider worthy of sharing? It is probably the same lesson I learned very early in my role and I continue to try to apply every day. Be kind, be patient, and listen. Really listen. Conflicts in associations are inevitable. A home, whether it is a condominium, a house or a co-op, is usually the most costly investment that anyone will make in a lifetime and if someone believes that investment is threatened, in any way, they are bound to be upset. Any association or manager that can respond to owners with compassion and consideration will almost always find it so much easier to resolve any conflict that may arise in the community. There will always be outliers for whom kindness, patience and attentiveness mean very little, but we can’t let those individuals alter the way we work with the majority of owners and members.
By Heather S. Gillespie, ESQ.
Heather has been the Common Interest Community Ombudsman at the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation for the past ten years. She is a licensed attorney in the Commonwealth of Virginia and received her law degree from the University of Richmond, T.C. Williams School of Law and her undergraduate degree from Rice University.