Inside the contentious world of NYC co-op board elections

By Lucy Cohen Blatter | November 8, 2016 - 11:59AM 

This year's presidential face-off may, in fact, be the most contentious we've seen on the national stage, but some New York City co-op board elections "make the Hillary-Trump [competition] look like preschool," says Dean Roberts, a lawyer with Norris, McLaughlin and Marcus (fyi, a Brick sponsor). 

Often the most heated board elections have to do with an upstart who wants change in the building, says Brian Lewis, a broker with Halstead who used to sit on his own Upper West Side building's board. 

Among the most hotly debated issues, are changes to pet policies ("dogs are people, too," he says), redesigns of the lobby and/or hallways, and maintenance charge changes, says Steve Wagner of Wagner Berkow (also a Brick sponsor).

Below, some crazy stories straight from those who've witnessed them:

A co-op coup

"I've seen instances when, at the annual meeting, the board president gets ready to announce that it's time to elect the officers and other board members hand him or her proxy votes saying that the building's decided to go in a different direction. Usually, he or she is handed a gift certificate to Per Se or something, and just looks shocked," says Lewis. "That's a coup."

Lewis says often it's about the new guard vs. the old guard . "A lot of times the newbies are asking 'what have you been doing all this time?' and the old-timers have to explain that the building used to be different and that they kept the building safe when the neighborhood wasn't. People need to appreciate that," he says. "That said, it's healthy to have a change every once in a while, too."

Hanging chads—co-op style

"Most large co-ops will use a professional ballot company for elections, but one that I worked with didn't do that," says Roberts. "The people who volunteered to count the ballots were elderly women who were well-meaning but not very skilled. It took three hours to get the numbers done and we had a two-way tie for the last open seat. The next day, I spent six hours with the ladies, and they realized they forgot to count an entire folder's worth of votes the day before. Now, instead of two people tied for first place, we had three," says Roberts, who told them they could hold a run-off election, but pending that, should see if they could broker a deal. Luckily, they did.

Runaway ballots

Roberts worked with a co-op board where the incumbents were pretty sure they were going to lose their board seats. As such, the managing agent ran off with the ballot boxes. "I was apoplectic," he says. When the managing agent returned, there was proof that he had copied the proxies on his home copier.
Wagner says he's seen plenty of issues arise when it comes to counting and checking proxy votes. "Sometimes questions will arise as to the legitimacy of proxies." Boards often find themselves comparing signatures to make sure that everything is kosher.

Long-held grudges

Roberts once worked with a co-op board where two of its members were arch-enemies. "These two women were on the board together and fought for years. It was truly affecting the board’s ability to function," he says. The two were running against one another and each had their minions. When Roberts finally asked what the reason for the anger between these women was, he found out that one of the women's daughters had beaten up the others on a playground in third grade. Said daughters were now married with kids. 

Roberts helped mediate the situation and eventually brought them back together. Tears ensued.  "It was a like a reality show," he says. 

When a board meeting becomes a boxing match

Wagner once worked with a building in which there was a serious smear campaign against the board president. "He had impeccable credentials and was truly knowledgeable," says Wagner. "But one of the shareholders who'd wanted to do some renovations began bad-mouthing him and claiming he was stealing money from the building." The constant leaflets and pamphlets led to a defamation suit (which Wagner believes the president won).
At one point, though, "these two old men literally squared off against one another. I actually stood between these two people—which is beyond my job description, by the way—and both of them were flailing their arms to get at one another." A man with a thick German accent said "Why are you people making our lives like this... we just want to be left alone? This is like the Nazis, invading you every day. You don't know what's coming next."
While it was certainly an overstatement, he says "the point was that this kind of campaign was not something that he or the people in the building approved of. When they went low, the building wanted to go high." Wagner says he tells clients this story as a cautionary tale to avoid getting involved in dirty campaigns.
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