Woman wants neighborhood groups to make decisions in public

From the Idaho Statesman

Bitter dispute pushed Foothills resident to consider filing a lawsuit, but instead she’s trying to change Idaho law

June Sparks says better communication equals less conflict and harmonious neighborhoods.

So Sparks, who lived through a bitter dispute over landscaping in her own Foothills subdivision, is pushing for the state to require open meetings between homeowners associations and residents.

Boise Democratic Sen. Mike Burkett plans to take the idea to the Legislature this winter. He’s hoping to prevent disputes at meetings of the nearly 2,500 registered homeowners’ associations across the state.

“It makes sense that HOAs adhere to simple rules about open meetings and public information and some of the same rules we want our other bodies of government to subscribe to and abide by,” he said.

In Sparks’ case, the homeowners association wanted to remove view-obstructing trees and a trampoline, among other things. She wanted to address the board in person, but said she never had a chance.

Sparks said she considered suing and even hired an attorney, but decided it wasn’t worth the fight.

“I realized I didn’t want to put my entire neighborhood through a lawsuit that would be costly,” Sparks said. “Instead, I decided to find out what the laws were and look into those laws. ”

Sparks found that Idaho doesn’t have any laws requiring homeowners associations to comply with state open meetings laws – something she said her research showed at least 40 states require. She contacted Burkett to help.

Burkett, an attorney, said he’s worked on many neighborhood disputes exacerbated by a lack of communication. The legislation he’ll propose next month will go a long way toward preventing animosity between neighbors, he said. The topic is especially timely in the Treasure Valley, given an increasing number of new associations as subdivisions and homes multiply.

“Homeowners associations have grown up around our developing economy,” Burkett said. “It’s an important part of many people’s lives these days. It’s a quasi-governmental activity created to represent people.”

Idaho’s open meetings law regulates how government bodies ensure public access as they meet and make decisions. The laws dictate when meetings must be open to the public, how to notify the public of a meeting, when the public can testify and under what circumstances officials can meet in private. The presumption under state law is that the public has access to all government meetings except special “executive sessions” on issues such as personnel or pending lawsuits.

Burkett said he’s not likely to face much opposition during the upcoming legislative session. Other growing areas, like Coeur d’Alene, Pocatello, Twin Falls and Idaho Falls also have a growing number of associations, he said.

In Idaho, homeowners associations are classified as private, non-profit organizations. The Idaho Secretary of State’s Office reports roughly 2,426 registered homeowners associations across the state and 739 in the Boise area.

“I think there is some real benefit to the homeowners and knowing what is going on with the HOA and being aware of this quasi-governmental entity and its impact on them,” Burkett said. “Having a more public meeting environment could go a long ways toward diffusing disputes.”

Mark Richmond, a member of the board for a large homeowners’ association in unincorporated Ada County, doubts the bill will do much to get more people involved in their neighborhoods.

Richmond, a hearing examiner for the Idaho Transportation Department, said his subdivision’s board opens its meetings now, sends out regular newsletters and invites participation. At the association’s annual meeting, 20 people means a “big turnout” out of 486 homes, he said.

Richmond said he got letters from the Moon Ridge association about a boat in his driveway and felt harassed. Until, he said, he was elected to the association board, which is a time-consuming, difficult position. Board decisions are made in the open and are not capricious or unilateral, he said.

“It does get frustrating at times,” Richmond said. “We are a volunteer board. We are there because we have an interest in keeping our neighborhood nice. We are all there to get on the same sheet of music and not fight each other. The fights happen and that’s just human nature. I don’t think open meetings are going to solve that.”

Sparks said she’s resolved all of her neighborhood conflicts, but wishes she could have resolved the problems by talking to her neighbors in person.

“All this false information was getting back to these board members. In this age of e-mailing, we get away from face-to-face meetings,” Sparks said. “Had they just talked to me in the beginning, had they agreed to meet with me at that time, everything would have been taken care of. It never would have gotten to the point where I considered litigation.”

Kathleen Kreller: 377-6418

From the Idaho Statesman

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