Archive for April, 2010

Ideas for Discussion

Monday, April 26th, 2010

In February 2010 I gathered several ideas about Berkeley Town House. These were ideas that various BTH residents had suggested in conversations. I wanted to help out by keeping these ideas in circulation, until their merits and demerits had been examined. A few residents were about to meet and talk about the forthcoming election of Directors, so I whipped up a list of these ideas in the form of a proposed agenda for our meeting.

One of the recipients shared this memo with some others here. Before long a few residents delivered speeches and circulated (mostly via the Board of Directors) memos attacking this list as the bible of a fiendish plot to destroy the cooperative. Here is the list that has earned its place in the BTH hall of villainy. The list of potential Director candidates is omitted.


12 February 2010

These are culled, with a feeble attempt at organization, by Jonathan Pool from discussions with several BTHers.

  1. Agenda
    1. Mission
    2. Strategy
    3. Tactics
  2. Mission
    1. Make BTH a better place for us to live.
    2. Make our operations more efficient, decreasing our recurring costs.
    3. Make our BTH shares worth more money.
    4. Participate in improving our community and world.
  3. Strategy
    1. Recruit a civil, tolerant, respectful, power-sharing, visionary, responsible leadership.
    2. Relentlessly leverage available in-house and community talent.
    3. Decentralize authority, making the Board of Directors supervisory, strategic, and serene.
    4. Accommodate work- and cash-contributing, rich and poor residents.
    5. Decide on the preferred member profile and market BTH with that emphasis.
    6. Focus the Manager on what the Manager must or can best do.
    7. Make pervasive use of current communication, documentation, and collaboration technology.
    8. Aggressively pursue opportunities for resource conservation.
    9. Provide more than the legally minimal transparency and accountability.
    10. Institutionalize imaginative long-range and strategic planning and evaluation.
    11. Organize enjoyable events more often and aggravating events less often.
  4. Tactics
    1. May 2010 election. How many positions on the ballot? Resignation possibilities. (3 to be elected, 0-2 to be appointed?) How many, whom, and when to nominate?
    2. Institutionalize committees with real action and expenditure authority and effective supervision. Model 1: Replace all existing committees with 5 standing committees, each containing 1 Director and 2 other voting members, covering all governance domains. Direct all new business to the applicable committee(s) first. Examples of domains to choose from:

      • physical plant
      • safety
      • marketing
      • community relations
      • social
      • finance
      • planning
      • management
      • technology
      • special projects

    3. Empower committees to appoint their own nonvoting auxiliary members.
    4. Design incentives as supplementary motivation to induce residents to serve on committees, possibly including honoraria, perquisites, special social and dining events, awards, and recognitions.
    5. Get the Bylaws amended to permit the Board to meet quarterly instead of monthly, and begin scheduling bimonthly or quarterly Board meetings, with parties and dinners during the intervening months.
    6. Define standards of resident access to committees, such as publicly announced committee meetings with opportunities for residents to speak, published contact information on committees, and Web posting of committee deliberations and documents.
    7. Create and fill a Community Advisory Committee.
    8. Investigate external public-interest organizations for possible corporate membership.
    9. Rethink the role of the Manager in cooperation with the Manager, with residents’ participation.
    10. Acquire and publicize an official email address for BTH.
    11. Officialize, or endorse and support, the BTH Web site.
    12. Provide common-area Internet access, and pursue building-wide wireless and wired networking.
    13. Focus the initial conservation effort on natural gas for radiator heat as the best saving and environmental-contribution opportunity.
    14. Consider sale- and rental-contingent conservation mandates.
    15. Digitize all records and make them always instantly available to all residents and staff, except as confidentiality may preclude.
    16. Investigate opportunities for revenue enhancement, including roof, kitchen, and dining-area leasing, event hosting, grants, and capture of real-estate sale commissions.
    17. Investigate financing opportunities to allow non-cash options for members in case of expensive projects.
    18. Study and implement reasonable standards of care for the financial and physical protection of the persons and property of members, residents, employees, and visitors.
    19. Use the Web, brokers, referral services, and event sponsorship to make prospects aware of BTH.
    20. Redecorate the common areas to appeal to a new generation of residents.
    21. Study trends in the market for owned senior housing.
    22. Study long-term options, including management outsourcing, volunteer management, a conversion to a different cooperative type, a condominium conversion, a sale to UC, a major upgrade, and a building replacement.

Endorsements

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

My candidacy in the election for Directors of Berkeley Town House is being endorsed by these members of the cooperative (names available on request):

“I am voting for Jonathan Pool because he is open to listening, discussing, and considering the ideas of all BTH members. Jonathan works hard researching ways to make BTH a better place to live.” (AG)

I like the questions you ask and the information you gather so that we can make intelligent decisions, and you will have my vote in May.” (OC)

I am solidly on board with you, Jonathan.” (VM)

We need more people who are trying to make this corporation work well and you do the work.  I greatly appreciate your efforts and support you.” (GB)

“Jonathan Pool has my vote.” (CL)

Jonathan Pool has helped me think through a number of tough questions regarding BTH, and he and Susan have been kindest neighbors.” (BB)

I endorse Jonathan Pool because I like his research ability and his pursuit of more democratic policies for all residents.” (WM)

The hardest working of all candidates is Jonathan. Therefore please vote for Jonathan and two other of the remaining four candidates.” (MR)

Jonathan Pool has the intelligence, diligence, a recognition of the importance of community, and curiosity to make him a good board member for our coop community. He is very aware of the need for cost saving as well as looking forward to what our building and community will need to maintain its affordability and attractiveness to new buyers. For all these reasons, I am happy to lend my name in support of his candidacy.” (DG)

Of course, not all endorsers agree with everything in my platform, but they know that I am committed to openness, responsibility, and respect for all who live in our community.

If you wish to join the others who are endorsing my candidacy, please comment below, or contact me personally. Thanks!

BTH Campaign Poster 1

Friday, April 23rd, 2010
Say no to bias. Vote for Pool.

Poster 1 in my campaign for BTH Director.

BTH residents, January 2010

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

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Remarks to BTH Members

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

The Board of Directors of Berkeley Town House invited all candidates in the May 2010 election to address the membership at the 20 April meeting. These are my remarks.


Thank you, Board of Directors, for arranging this opportunity for members to become better acquainted with the candidates, and for the candidates to hear from the members. I’m elated that there are more candidates than positions. And last Sunday evening Jack Sawyer and I ran another candidate forum with 15 people in attendance, and we had an energetic and constructive exchange of opinions. This is how elections ought to be.

So let me say something to my fellow members about my candidacy.

You may have been wondering why I’m a candidate. I know it’s premature, after just a year in this community, to be on the Board. So why now?

Some folks will claim it’s part of a plan to relocate you into sleeping bags in People’s Park, and to make cockroaches eligible for BTH membership, but all such fantasies are false.

BTH is the place that Susie and I have chosen as our home. We enjoy it. But it could be better. In particular, BTH could be governed more openly and more responsibly, and it could be better connected internally and externally. It’s mostly the Board that can make these improvements happen. I’ve spoken with others who share these goals, but none of them has agreed to be a candidate this year, so when some urged me to run I agreed to.

I’ve made copies of a statement available for you to take with you. It outlines several specific goals. I hope you’ll read it and tell me what you agree and disagree with. Some goals there are almost trivial, such as selling quarters from the laundry room back to us right here in the building. Others are a bit more substantial, such as embargoing the Board’s current plan to expand the management office. And others are downright controversial.

If I were a good politician, I’d avoid the controversies and stick to platitudes. But I’m a bad politician. I will not deceive my way onto the Board.

So now I’m going to zero in on three planks of my platform that are the most detested. Of course, it takes a majority of the Directors to adopt any policy, but I still want to make sure you know where I stand on these particular issues.

First, I stand for open and rapid access to information. Look out this window at the patio and you might wonder, “Who did that work? Was it competitively bid? How much did we pay for it? What’s the warranty on it? Will there be annual maintenance costs?” Well, you are entitled to that information. You aren’t tenants or inmates here; you own the place. I asked to see that contract in December, and here it is April, four months later, and the Board hasn’t managed to show me the contract yet. The Board agrees we have the right to see such documents, but it says it’s too busy. And I’m not the only member who’s been waiting months to see BTH records. I stand for a new policy on access to records that guarantees same-day service for normal requests.

Second, I stand for facing the facts about the seismic safety of our building. Some reputable methods of seismic assessment seem to predict that major earthquakes will do almost no damage to BTH. But some experts believe that even total collapse is a real possibility. In my opinion, it is irresponsible to be paralyzed in the face of such wild disagreement among experts. I stand for putting the seismic safety of the building back on the Board’s agenda, studying the issue using methods that cost nothing, and, if that doesn’t suffice, budgeting a reasonable initial amount for further study.

Third, I stand for making the benefits of living at BTH, obviously including the fact of its very existence, better known outside. We should have a Web site, like thousands of other coops and condo associations, where people planning ahead for senior housing can get basic information about this community and get in touch with us by email, even if no suitable apartment happens to be vacant at the time they begin looking.

A vote for me is not a vote to make these positions BTH policy. It is a vote to assure that these positions are represented by at least one person in the deliberations of the Board. And, regardless of my positions, if I were on the Board I would be asking for your opinions during all phases of the decisionmaking process. I’m not merely preaching open governance; if elected, I plan to practice it.

Thank you.

RealManage

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

A candidate for Berkeley Town House manager visited BTH on 20 April 2010 at 6 p.m. The company is RealManage. Here is some information about it before the meeting, mostly discovered and compiled by Susie. After that are some notes from the meeting itself.

The firm emphasizes its use of information technology, and it says it offers an environmental paperless management program.

RealManage has a mix of supporters and detractors, like almost any other company. It might be informative to try to talk to the customers mentioned below before signing a contract.

An item of possible concern is the lawsuits filed by two HOAs in Texas, which alleged that RM neglected its duties and wasted money. Responding to the lawsuits, RM emailed: “We are confident that the truth will be found out on this matter and that it will be resolved quickly.” RealManage also threatened a countersuit, saying “we intend to aggressively pursue any third party who may have tortuously interfered with any of our business relationships or knowingly made false accusations to achieve other objectives”. A suit was also reportedly filed against RealManage by Northwest Austin Municipal District No. 1. We don’t know how any of these cases was resolved; it would be good to ask about lawsuits, but a California employee may not know much about Texas legal actions.

Rancho Paraiso in Walnut Creek switched to RM in spring 2008 and seemed to be having no issues with the company by fall 2009. However, it’s curious that RealManage’s Walnut Creek office doesn’t manage it; instead, the San Rafael office does. We could ask why.

Speaking of the San Rafael office, we have found three reviews of it, all negative. There are two Yelp reviews; one includes this statement: “Our HOA just switched management companies leaving RealManage behind and not a moment too soon.” One HOA that switched is Peacock Gap in San Rafael, which last year went from RM to Eugene Burger Management Corporation. The third review comes from the membership rating service Consumers’ Checkbook and is dated July 2009; this member says “It is impossible to get anyone to handle your problems. The phone often answers in Texas and they don’t want to let you speak with the manager in San Rafael. They promised to fix something for 7 months before doing so. It was broken steps leading up to the third floor! It took more than a dozen calls to get the work done. And they tell you something is going to be done that will inconvenience you (by posting signs on your door) and then don’t do it or tell you why.”

RM has seven offices in Texas and only three in California, so most of the info we have found is from Texas. A review on Yelp from April of this year stated: “Working with their Austin office is a nighmare. … Since we made the switch to a new company I am amazed at all the mistakes we continue to uncover from Real Manage’s time with us. Banking errors, misapplied assessments, budget errors. …” This review is apparently from the secretary of Block House Creek HOA.

member in Texas blogged about “poor billing practices”, slow communications, and unresponsiveness from RealManage and got comments from others reporting their own experiences. This member concluded that RealManage unsuccessfully tries to tailor its system to each customer rather than perfecting a single system and sticking with it.

One Texas community’s newsletter from last July reported that RM was better than their previous company, especially after assigning them a new manager. But another continued to have problems with RM even after a manager change, so it eventually dropped the company. This association also claimed that RealManage refused to allow the community to terminate the contract in mid-year because of nonperformance by RealManage. Another Texas community switched from RM to another company for unspecified reasons.

A scathing anonymous review of a Texas RM office, from the employee’s point of view, says “All your hard work & effort will make the current owners’ millions grow even more….stress level for workers is very high.”

A positive review in an HOA newsletter says “RealManage has been a success…” and cites improvements compared with previous management companies. However, the newsletter’s editor is an RM employee, so it might be wise to confirm the judgment by talking to community members.

Some of the discussion about RealManage’s accounting has dealt with statement-based versus coupon-based billing for assessments. It may be useful to ask RealManage about this.

RealManage, unlike some competitors, doesn’t disclose a list of its clients to the public. We wanted to find urban clients, high-rise clients, and clients with pre-1970s buildings, similar to BTH, but we could find none. One could ask for a list of such clients so comparable references can be checked.


At the meeting, Duane McPherson presented RealManage’s services and answered questions. He said RM manages about 65 associations in the Bay Area, but won’t disclose the list of them to us or anybody else, for fear of poaching by competitors. The most similar association now managed by RM nearby is Bayview in Albany. The Walnut Creek office is mainly a place to hold meetings, not a real office, so we would be managed out of San Rafael.

RM would charge BTH $2400 per month for basic management (plus about $900 for the extra services at the start of the contract). It would also offer extra services. They include semiskilled physical-plant maintenance work in-house, for $37.50 to $55 per hour, and four-page color newsletter production, for $160 per issue.

Contrary to what we had read, RM offers a contract that is terminatable by either party on 60 days’ notice.

McPherson acknowledged that RM has been sued and criticized. He gave RM’s side of this story, without seeming unduly defensive or aggressive.

McPherson is considered RM’s CGO (Chief Green Officer). He is the RM expert on resource conservation and environmental impacts. He would help BTH evaluate energy and water conservation measures, and he is confident that solar energy generation will become cheap enough to warrant its investment in the future.

RM’s main distinction from its competitors, and McPherson’s main passion, is the use of information technology to make all activities more efficient and accountable. RM digitizes all recent records and make them available via board and member Web portals. It abstracts the governing documents, so the relevant sections can be shown where relevant. Financial transactions and maintenance management are largely automated.

RM generally does not provide or maintain ordinary Web sites for the communities that it manages, because the member portal sites fulfill many of the functions of Web sites, including internal communications.

In the beginning, RM would likely bring a computer and scanner to BTH to perform the bulk retrospective digitization. It could even do the entire collection of some 140,000 pages, at a cost to be determined. It would use the already digitized construction drawings.

Digitization at RM includes OCR conversion, so documents are searchable. However, as of now the documents are not stored in a way that permits keyword searches on whole collections. BTH or people at BTH could, however, download copies of documents into local repositories and make those searchable.

Another technological innovation proposed by RM is the replacement of the coin acceptors in the laundry room with ID readers.

McPherson expressed a realistic understanding of members’ rights to access records. His summary was that members, as co-owners, are entitled to see almost all corporate records, with confidentiality exceptions. This appears to me to be a much more correct opinion than ACI’s McCormick’s apparent opinion that nothing is available to members unless legal justification is provided.

McPherson said that he has a couple of employees in mind who he believes would fit BTH well as manager and associate manager.

In general, I found McPherson’s legal and technical knowledge more impressive than McCormick’s, and I had a much easier time exchanging information and ideas with McPherson.

We Defiantly Pollute

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

The vegetation contractor working for Berkeley Town House, Carquinez Landscaping, occasionally sculpts the hedges around the building with a gas-powered trimmer. Next time I blog about this I should include a sound recording and an olfactory sample of this activity. But you presumably know that model-airplane racket and the smell of inefficiently combusted gasoline. Our building’s exhaust system pulls that pollutant right into our windows. Here’s Carquinez on 17 April 2010 giving our hedge a butch cut:

Carquinez Landscaping employee

Clipping with gas

And here’s the owner of Carquinez reacting when I told her that the noise and odor were annoying:

Carquinez Landscaping owner

A defiant stance

Her response was: “Why don’t you photograph all the cars passing by and complain about them?”

Our Board of Directors could insist on the use of an electric trimmer. This would eliminate the smell pollution. (As the Carquinez owner sensibly pointed out after she calmed down, we would need to provide an electrical outlet for this.) Or the Board could decide that naturally haphazard hedges are handsome and hedges shaped like cheap coffins are ugly. This would eliminate both the smell and the noise, and presumably allow us to keep more of our Social Security benefits.

Hey, Gardening Committee. This is your jurisdiction. Why not speak up?

BTH Manager Departure Diagnosis

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

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