Running Effective Meetings with Disruptive Owners

Resource Topic: 
Governance
Meetings
By: Loura K. Sanchez

One of the most challenging situations that may confront your board during a meeting is handling very disruptive audience members.  For example, what if an owner with strong opinions who’s known for being very outspoken, starts yelling during the meeting?  Fortunately, this kind of disruption is very rare during a well-planned, well-organized and well-run meeting.  So, the key is advanced planning to handle the worst situation that may arise.

Parliamentary Tip
The key tools the presiding officer has to handle disruptive members are a carefully prepared agenda, a “sergeant at arms” appointed in advance and a recess.  It is true that Robert’s Rules of Order Section 61, provides detailed disciplinary procedures available to a presiding officer.  These procedures range from calling a member to order, reprimand, suspension and even expulsion.  But, as that same section explains, “It is usually in the best interest of the organization first to make every effort to obtain a satisfactory solution of the matter quietly and informally” (RONR Sec. 61, page 624 lines 16 – 18).

Agenda
The agenda should provide an opportunity for all members, including potentially disruptive Mrs. Smith, to speak and ask questions.  At the very beginning of the meeting, or the beginning of the comment period if that occurs first, explain the rules by which you will moderate both the meeting and comment period – these should be in your Conduct of Meetings Policy.  Then, stick to it; moderate the meeting and member comment period neutrally and evenhandedly, strictly according to the rules.  That way everyone is treated equally and fairly. 

General Authority.
Generally, the board of directors may deal with disruptive behavior under authority of the governing documents of the association, including its Conduct of Meetings Policy.  If your governing documents do not have provisions against disruptive and harassing behavior, your association should amend its documents to include them. The association should also ensure that its governing documents contain procedures for reprimand, fines, suspension and even expulsion of unruly members during meetings.

Methods for Keeping Things Calm and Orderly.
Announce Ground Rules.
Prior to starting the meeting, the presiding officer should explain the ground rules for conducting the meeting. The officer should explain the meeting process and state if and when homeowner comments will be permitted. Under the Colorado Common Interest Ownership Act, board meetings, with the exception of executive sessions, are open to all members and the Board must allow homeowners to speak. If certain members tend to continuously disrupt or dominate homeowner forum, strict time limits and control techniques, discussed below, should be applied consistently throughout the meeting. Keep in mind, however, that many members are attending a meeting solely for the purpose of providing helpful and constructive suggestions. You should not discourage such contributions or worse yet, inadvertently create homeowner apathy!

Time Limits for Speaking.
More often than not, the Board must prepare itself for a heated, if not downright nasty debate on a controversial topic. If such a topic is on your agenda, the Board should set limits on speaking time consistent with your Conduct of Meetings Policy. In addition, rather than calling on raised hands during the meeting, the Board should provide a sign-up sheet for those who wish to speak. An ideal time limit is three to five minutes. The Board should also set a rule that all who wish to speak must have an opportunity to speak once before anyone can speak a second time. This rule should be announced with the other “ground rules” at the beginning of the meeting. While the Board must allow for a reasonable number of people to speak to each side of an issue, this number will vary depending on the number of homeowners who wish to speak. It is reasonable to establish a shorter speaking time limit for those who wish to speak a second time or to rebut a previous comment. Keep in mind that the Board must allow a homeowner to speak before the Board takes formal action on any item under discussion. This opportunity to speak must be allowed in addition to any other speaking opportunities provided by the Board.

Controlling the Meeting.
The chairperson of any meeting must embody the following qualities: organization, composure and, above all, the ability to remain calm, yet in charge of the often frenzied mass of speakers. That familiar scenario in which a controversial topic causes respectful, courteous “friends” to degenerate into disrespectful, profanity-using and even threatening “strangers” can be avoided. If faced with a particularly hostile or difficult member, the chairperson should gently and non-defensively explain that the behavior is inappropriate and explain why, in the best interest of the organization, the meeting should proceed, because the right of the majority to have the meeting proceed as planned in the agenda is most important. Clearly explaining why you are moving the meeting along helps reassure other members that you are not taking away owners’ rights to be heard, but are instead protecting everyone’s rights.

In the case of a particularly egregious breach of order, after numerous warnings, the chairperson can direct the secretary to take down the words used by the disorderly member, and should “name” the offender in such minutes (i.e., “Mr. X! The chair has asked you to refrain from offensive language three times, and yet you still refuse to comply.”)

Recess. 
If disruptive behavior persists, the chair should call a brief recess to diffuse the situation and decide how best to handle the matter.  Speaking with the disruptive individual(s) and making sure they know there is a way to have a meaningful opportunity to be heard and have their problem resolved or concern addressed.  Include the sergeant at arms in this discussion, and explain that the sergeant at arms will, unfortunately, have to ask them to leave the meeting if they continue to disrupt the meeting for everyone else.  It is rarely necessary to take this step if you’ve laid the groundwork properly with the techniques discussed above.

Removing the Member.
Removal should be the last resort. If an association cannot conduct business due to serious and/or continued disruption from a member, the association may consider ordering him or her from the meeting. Such action, however, is not recommended unless absolutely necessary, as the removal of a member could have negative repercussions. A better alternative would be to adjourn the meeting until a later time rather than forcing a member to leave.

The most important way to handle a disruptive member is to treat that member just as respectfully, fairly but firmly, as every other member.