Sunday, September 24, 2017

There's an 800 Pound Gorilla on My Berm and an Elepahant in the Room

(This article was originally posted around April 2017. After reading it, I realize it is relevant today. As a result, I've making some minor adjustments to bring it up to date and am posting it once again.)

Let me start by saying what you read here is my personal opinion.  I was a member of the committee that reviewed the rules and by-laws early in the year and published the results in February of 2017.  In this post, I do not speak on behalf of anyone else.  However, I was privy to the entire process by which the committee wrote its report. There and in this article, I was drawing my past experience and current research, much of which I continued after the publishing of the committee report

I had a combined 10 years on the grievance committee and contract negotiating committee of a large regional school district. I spent three years as the VP of the teachers' association, six years on the Sherwood Glen board (3 as President), and attended dozens of workshops and hundreds of meetings associated with those roles. I've been involved with about two dozen legal actions and arbitrations concerning boards of education and this condo board. I've also been behind the control panel at RCTV during dozens of town meetings and have observed the process by which business is conducted.

That being said, let's start by addressing the elephant in the room.  The rules have been examined and amended numerous times since they were written. They have remained largely unchanged.  The section on ornamentation, to the best of my knowledge has remained relatively unchanged.  There have been times when boards discussed removing some of the prohibitions, but felt is was ill-advised, because they had been established and reaffirmed by previous boards.

However, there were some significant ornamentation related changes to the Commons and Grounds section. The bird feeder rules were changed in response to a rodent issue, and though not officially adopted as a rules change, the board did add adopt guidelines for ornamentation along the edge on the pond. Both changes were made with considerable input from the community, and in the case of pond side ornamentation, the Rockingham County Conservation Commission was consulted.

The changes were implemented, because the rules at that time, were not clear about enforcement of these situations. In order to do what the board felt was right for the community, they they had to  change the rules, but is was not done unilaterally. It was ALWAYS done in public, with public input, and according methods prescribe in the condominium governing documents and state law. It was and is the board's ultimate decision as to changing the rules, but residents were given ample opportunity for input and were well aware of any upcoming enforcement.

If conditions are such that they require a rules change, the board should make the required change with resident input over an appropriate period of time to ensure they are doing what is best for the community.

The decision should be made based on solid research that indicates the need for the change.  For example, the board received complaints about rat sightings. The board acted quickly to deal with the immediate rodent issue and then conducted extensive research to effect a long term solution.The board discussed the need to change the bird feeder rules.  There was disagreement during the discussion, both in the community and on the board, but eventually a consensus was reached and the rules were changed.

A similar process took place for the pond-side ornamentation issue, but unlike the rat situation, there was no time sensitivity or safety issues.  This allowed the board to explore the situation even more thoroughly, bring in the Rockingham County Conservation Commission, and to craft the guidelines in consultation with residents.
After examining the rules, the committee came to the conclusion that the rules were reviewed many times in the past and changed as needed.  The question here was whether the area between the back and the conservation land was to be considered berms or commons.  It was determined to be common land. Prohibitions were clear and unambiguous.  However, it was perfectly clear that past boards were lax in enforcing many of those obvious violations.

A choice could be made to allow ornamentation in that area or return it to its natural state.  After consulting with the RCCC, and researching how conservation land around the state was developed to encourage community use, it was decided to create guidelines that would encourage use, protect the pond, roll back some of the changes that were made, and grandfather others. Guidelines were changed so that it could be made clear to future residents what was and was not permitted in that area.

That brings us to the 800 pound gorilla.  There are clearly things which are prohibited by the rules.  Spinners and berm ornaments with moving parts are two examples.  There are other rules that are not open to interpretation by anyone, but what about an 800 pound gorilla statue on my berm.  Nowhere in the rules, does it prohibit an 800 pound gorilla. However, there is a rule that the board reserves the right to deem any ornament in appropriate.  So my 800 pound gorilla will now have to live in my basement, because the community and board would both consider the supersized simian as an inappropriate ornament. 

It is the board's obligation to enforce the rules and the community standards. The prohibitions in the rules are clear. However, it is equally clear that ornamentation IS allowed.  In cases where a clear prohibition is not apparent, a judge or arbitrator will always look at past practice, community standards, and culture that established the norms over the years. Boards need to tread lightly when it comes to gray areas.  At the very least, they must be able to defend their enforcement of ANY rule by citing clear reasons for doing so.

Residents have no choice but to accept board enforcement of items clearly defined by the rules. However, when it come to enforcing ornamentation that they deem acceptable or unacceptable, the board cannot impose their interpretation of what is and isn't appropriate without experiencing considerable resistance or legal challenges.  If they do so without previous public discussion and in violation of by-laws and HB 353, if challenged, the board actions will be unenforceable.

Aside from adhering to by-laws and HB 353, open communication is critical.  Meetings without the public in attendance have been a problem a number of times over the past 7 years or my residency here at Sherwood Glen.  Beginning in 2010, with the establishment of the Website and the publishing of periodic bulletins, boards began a conscious effort to improve transparency.  That trend seems to have been reversed in May 2016 and is in part responsible to the current concerns.

This became a problem when the past two presidents opted to began enforcing all of the prohibitions without due process, inadequate public input, and at unadvertised and undocumented meetings. Enforcing rules is their right and responsibility, but without due process, the actions may be unenforceable. By not including the public they ended up enforcing things that at the very least, were contrary to community opinion and at the worse, violations of by-laws and HB 353, which would make them unenforceable.

Below is a chart which details the communications between the board and the community since 2012. The 2017 figures are only accurate to the extent that they are projections based on currently advertised meetings and other communications.  I hope these figures changes with as the board seeks to be more communicative and transparent.

(Note:2017 communications did improve after the filing of the Rules Review Committee Report and are now reflected in the chart which was published on the Sherwood Glen Facebook page the SherwoodGlen blog.)

The problem has been compounded by the fact that the board was acting between quarterly meetings in violation of by-laws and New Hampshire HB 353. That is also detailed in the report.  This is not a conclusion arrived at by the committee simply through reading the documents cited. Informal contacts with attorneys and town officials were made as well. I will stress here as was stated in the report, I do not feel this was done intentionally. It was most likely through inexperience and a lack of understanding of the processes.

The situation that existed which allowed this controversy to develop could have been avoided if the board followed the by-laws and HB 353. BOTH call for properly advertised meetings. BOTH require minutes. Open meetings require public input.  Meetings at which the public is not invited, under HB 353, MUST be recorded an available for residents to inspect.

With the update of HB 353, any board should realize that holding an open meeting with public input is probably a better option than holding a meeting without the public, especially if the action is going to be controversial.  The only official record of a public meeting likely to exist are the minutes or other printed documentation. The recording of a meeting in which the public is not invited, is a word for word recording of the entire meeting.

Any action taken by a board outside the provisions of the by-laws and HB 353, are basically unenforceable. Regardless of the violation cited and action taken, they could be challenged in much the same way any criminal defense attorney would challenge evidence obtained illegally.  It would be thrown out of court, if it got that far.

The board must conduct all non-emergency business in public, properly advertising them, and allowing the input of residents.  Recognizing the amount of actions and board business that had previously been conducted outside the guidelines of the by-laws and HB 353, the 2017-2018 board stated they will be scheduling montly public meetings along with the quarterly meetings.

This becomes particularly important, because much, if not all of the business previously conducted in violation of by-laws and HB 353, is subject to challenge.The 2017-2018 board needs to revisit items not handled according to prescribe procedures.  Otherwise, past actions would leave the current board vulnerable to legal challenge on things that would otherwise be within their rights to enforce.

The previous board has done much that is positive. Some of the actions taken outside of prescribed procedure are positive in nature, and would be approved had they been discussed in public. They will likely remain unchallenged. Some are not so clear cut and may well have result the new board revisiting the actions and re-mediating as needed.

Moving forward, the new board has many options and opportunities to heal the current rift. I encourage a course correction that will restore harmony in the community and trust in the board.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Digging for Digital Gold

A few hours ago, my grandson and I were sitting on the floor examining the contents of my Rube Goldberg box.  It's literally a collection of junk that I've collected over the years.  I figured he was at the age where he could have some fun with it.

As it turns out we BOTH did.  I came across an old 4.0 megapixel camera.  We threw some batteries in it and found that worked. Unfortunately, it had a strange USB connection for which I didn't have a cable.  I told him there was no way to get the pictures off.

I got up to answer a text that had just come in and while I was texting, he was exploring the camera.  The next thing I heard was, "What's this, Pop-pop?" I turned around to see him holding an SD card that I had overlooked.

I put it in my computer and found digital gold.  There were pictures still on it from 2005!  Some were of projects from students at Southern Regional Middle School and some were pictures from students at the MLK Elementary School in Atlantic City.

The pictures brought back a flood of memories of projects, which back then were ground breaking. The ones from Southern Regional were part of a cross curricular unit in which the entire school participated.  The theme that year was Egypt.  Teachers throughout the school designed and shared lesson plans around that theme.  The energy in school was electric and the unit culminated in the school stage being turned into an Egyptian museum complete with about two tons of sand.

These are a few of about two dozen pyramids made by students as part of one of the math lessons during the project.

The Atlantic City pictures were even more exciting and what's more amazing is that I was talking about this project with my grandson three days before he found them on the camera!

In 2005, I was mentoring 3rd grade teachers to help them integrate technology into the curriculum. During the summer of 2005, Andy Carvin had given us a three day workshop on film making. As part of that July workshop we created what we believe was one of, if not THE first elementary school video blogs, called Atlantic City Rough Cuts.

In September, I introduced them to a digital story telling software called Kartouche. By November  Janine Riggins and her third graders were using Andy's lessons and Kartouche to create products shown in the video below.

Digital gold!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Teaching with FLASH!

As a kid, growing up on the farm, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and The Flash, and other DC comic heroes were my companions. Along with my father and mother, they were role models who reinforced the values he instilled in us.

Comics and the life lessons within them were literally and figuratively in the classroom with me  throughout forty years of teaching and professional development until I retired in 2012, but In 2017, little has changed. I still enjoy comics in the form of movies and TV shows, and the lessons continue.

Today, during while watching the latest episode of Flash, in a single paragraph, the he put into words, something the every good teacher understands either intuitively, or as a result of great examples.  It's been something I've been trying to do through 25 years in the classroom and 15 years of professional development.  If said it in many different ways, but today, the Flash summed it up in a single, elegant paragraph that cuts to the heart of teaching and learning.

Flash and his protege, Kid Flash, were trying to work through problems in Kid Flash's training. Kid Flash had recently failed at an attempt to save someone, and lamented, "You're telling me everything that I need to learn. I'm just not getting it! I..."
Flash interrupted with, "No, that's not it.  I've been letting you coast by on your own raw talent, which you have a lot of, but teaching is a lot more than just doing something and expecting you to follow.  It's about inspiring you and empowering you to use your gifts to succeed on your own.  That's what I need to do.  That's what I'm going to do from now on, so that next time you are out there on your own, you will win."

What more needs to be said?

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Beloved Cat and Lawn Ornamentation

Much has been said about the movement to standardize ornamentation here at Sherwood Glen. As a member of the committee charged with examining the rules for ambiguity, I've given it a great deal of thought lately.

Enforcing clear rules should not be a problem.  I think the board was well meaning in their intent to scale back some infractions of the rules, but I see a number of reasons their effort has seen such a back lash.  They include the sudden cultural change demanded by the Board's action, the scope of the issues being address, the decision making process, and the method in which it was implemented.

I would like to address just the last item in this blog.  It reminds me of a joke about two brothers, Joe and Bill.  Joe had the opportunity to go on a trip to France, but he didn't want to leave his beloved cat in a kennel. He had raised him from a kitten. The two were inseparable and truth be told, the cat was as much of his family as his brother.

Bill offered to watch the cat.  While Joe was grateful, but knew Bill had never taken care of a cat.  He gave Bill a stack of papers that detailed everything in the cat's life. It was everything Joe needed to take care of Whiskers.  He left food, his favorite toys, blankets, and the phone number of the vet, just in case he needed advice or Whiskers got sick.

He headed to the airport, but the cat was on his mind.  He boarded the plane and worries filled his head. He loved that cat!  During the entire flight to France, he found himself consumed by thoughts of the cat, and the moment he landed he called Bill and said, "How's Whiskers?"

Bill replied, "The cat is dead."

First there was stunned silence and disbelief.  Then Joe dropped to his kneed and began to wail uncontrollably.  Finally, he began to scream and curse at his brother.  How could you do this? How could you let it happen?  Joe continued for many minutes, before he was calm enough to talk to Bill rationally.

Eventually they talked as brothers and Bill said he was really sorry about the cat and asked how he could have handled the call better.

"You could have broken it to me gently.  When I called the first time, you could have said the cat got out and she's on the roof.  The next time I called you could have said, you're going to have to call someone to help get her down.  The next time I called, you could have said the fire department was one the way, and eventually you could have given me the news.  In short, you could have broken it to me gently!"

Bill realized he was wrong and again apologized for his insensitivity. The apology was accepted and they talked about the trip and Joe's plans for the coming week. As Joe was getting ready to hang up, he asked, "Oh by the way, how's Mom doing."

Joe replied, "She's on the roof."

The letter many of us found on our door, citing perceived violations, came out of the blue. It had the same impact as, "The cat is dead." It could have been done differently.

The board might want to check Whisker's history or called the vet for advice.  The minutes from the meetings of May 7, May 20, and June 5, 2014 detail the process an earlier board took when there were complaints about clearing of land and ornamentation around the pond. The issue was handled in a series of three meetings which included consultation with the Rockingham County Conservation District, a presentation, and public discussion.

The result was a set of guideline for the handling of the area around the pond.  They were developed and enforced through community consensus. A good start for the current Board's efforts would have been to revisit those guidelines, formalize them into the rules (something that probably should have been done in 2014), and to begin the process of getting the cat down off the roof, by addressing a this issue, and returning that area to the July 2014 state.

The old adage of slow and steady wins the race, also comes to mind.