by Bill Biega
In New Jersey there are many gated communities, many open only to residents 55 years old and above. They are of different types, some are operated as condominiums, but most contain individual homes and apartments owned by their residents. In all cases the open land between dwellings and the streets and amenities such as swimming pools and clubhouses are owned by the association. The residents are members of the association and pay dues to cover the costs of operation of the common property.
In many cases the association provides maintenance of the privately owned driveways, sidewalks, shrubbery, and trees immediately adjacent to the dwelling. In rare instances the association also maintains the roofs and exterior surfaces of the dwellings. Usually the association provides rooms in the clubhouse and supports various activities, such as social clubs, as well as sports activities such as tennis, bocce ball, and golf. In larger associations a weekly or monthly newspaper is published to provide a forum for clubs and individual members to inform about their activities or write essays on subjects of interest
The association usually has a small professional management staff, whose salaries are paid through the residents’ association dues, to carry out maintenance, provide security, and services, but the overall management of activities and clubs is performed by volunteers from among the residents.
The overall direction of all activities, the establishment of rules and budgets, is performed by a board of trustees, the members of which are elected by residents, from among volunteers offering their services. Those volunteers spend many hours without remuneration to carry out their duties on behalf of the association residents. The board of trustees usually approves the activities of operating committees and selects their members from among various residents who have volunteered their services.
Public meetings are held on a regular basis, at which the board reviews actions taken, including an annual budget upon which the maintenance fees billed to the membership are based. At these public meetings, open to all residents, residents may bring up problems that need to be addressed and may question actions taken by the board and operating committees. Major issues are resolved by voting, either written or oral.
Thus the organization of gated senior communities parallels that of townships and they are mostly democratic and transparent. Those who serve in major roles, committee or club chairpersons, ruling boards of trustees, give generously of their time, working long hours. Occasionally, however, their responsibilities and control over community life goes to their heads. They start to believe they are indispensable, know best how things should be run, and ignore voices raised in open meetings. They become dictators.
Concordia, in Monroe Township, is a good example. Nobody questions the fact that the association is well run, the grounds mostly well kept, the streets well maintained, the clubhouse and pool immaculate. But rules established more than a quarter of a century ago are rigidly maintained and applied by strict interpretation of words, rather than intent. Requests for some modifications by the association membership are generally ignored.
For example, electricity bills are high because almost all homes are heated by electric heat pumps. Many residents wished to take advantage of New Jersey state subsidies to install solar panels, saving up to $1,500 annually. This required a modification of the by-laws. The board took advantage of an obscure half-sentence in the New Jersey law, regulating the use of solar panels, to refuse permission. In spite of many protests, the board ruled that there would be no further discussion of the matter.
The board maintains a censorship of programs and speakers at club meetings and programs. This community has an internal cable television channel operated by a committee of volunteers. Recently they wanted to include in the weekly program a film about Easter and Passover. The board decreed that a film about religion was not in the interest of the community and banned it.
The most flagrant disregard of democratic rules occurred during the 2015 election to the board. Board members serve for two years and at each annual election half of them run for re-election. At this election a long time resident, a member of several committees, ran for election
Making promises of change. This was his second try and he was successful. He displaced a current board member, who had been president for several years. This aroused a furious search for a way to disqualify the newly elected member. The by-laws specify that “All Owners of Homes in the Community shall be Members”. They discovered that the title to the home of the newly elected board member is in the name of his family trust, not specifically in the resident’s name. Therefore, they arbitrarily determined that the person is not a member and is not eligible to vote or hold office. The board therefore disqualified his election and restored the displaced president to the now open position which also violated the by-laws which stipulate that; if a board position becomes available within the first year of its term, an election must be held, rather than just placing the next highest vote getter in the position, as they did.
The Concordia Association is ruled by a dictatorship of a group of long-standing board members and not by recognized democratic principles. Unfortunately, less than 25 percent of the membership actually votes in elections. This may be true in some other gated communities. In order to maintain democratic principles it is essential that community members actively participate in elections and vote for qualified new members for their ruling community boards.
Bill Biega is a resident of Monroe Township who has clashed with his neighborhood homeowner’s association because it denied him permission to install solar panels.