January 27, 2021
“Never let a good crisis go to waste.” -Winston Churchill.
The Virginia General Assembly is currently in session. One interesting bill to Virginia homeowners is 2021 HB1816. This bill seeks to amend the Property Owners Association Act and Virginia Condominium Act regarding the use of “electronic means” for meetings and voting. Making videoconference a larger and better part of HOAs and condominiums is a good thing. But this flawed bill ought to undergo changes necessary to protect Virginia landowners and the integrity of the community association “open meeting” policies in place in Virginia.
I am a practicing attorney who represents lot owners and unit owners in community association matters. Sometimes my clients are in opposition to association boards, and in other cases they are dealing with a dispute with a neighbor where they are aligned on the same side as the board. I am familiar with the essential role of already existing “open meeting” statutes for community association in establishing procedural safeguards. To the extent that state law gives associations substantial power, these open meeting rules must be preserved and strengthened.
As Virginia law currently stands, the statutes require almost all deliberations of boards of directors to be conducted in properly-noticed meetings that owners are able to attend or follow along and participate in contemporaneously. The POAA (and Condo Act) prohibits boards and committees from doing business in informal “work sessions” or email exchanges (with very limited exceptions for executive session). Va. Code § 55.1-1816. This is important, because most HOAs have the power under their governing instruments and the POAA to adopt rules and regulations that can impose limits on how they can use or improve their property. Va. Code § 55.1- 1819. This is significant because the ability to use or improve property is an essential aspect of its value as an investment, and the freedoms we enjoy as Americans have to be exercised somewhere, and the home is the most important place for exercising freedoms of all kinds. The “open meeting” requirements for HOAs and Condos, which are supposed to (supposedly) function as “mini-democracies”, are similar to the open government laws that require local government board members to conduct all business (with very limited exceptions) in noticed meetings.
HB1816 would weaken these protections, and in associations where safeguards are not otherwise enshrined in their governing instruments, facilitate common practices by HOA boards, committees, and managers to circumvent the “open meeting” requirements by making important decisions for the community by text message, email, telephone, or informal social gatherings.
HB1816 , in the amendments to § 55.1-1832(F) and § 55.1-1935(E), would allow any meeting of a HOA or condominium, be it a board meeting, committee meeting, or annual or special meeting of the members to be conducted by “electronic means.” Most Virginians are now familiar with various forms of videoconference, be it Zoom, WebEx, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting or other similar programs. The Coronavirus has made these technologies a common practice. I have previously posted about the use of remote meeting technology in my December 2020 article, Presenting to HOA Boards and Committees in Remote Hearings. I use these services and think that they are a great thing. I think that they ought to be used in Condominium and HOAs because they have the power to increase participation by many members who may not otherwise be able to participate because of a disability, mobility concerns, inability to drive, or childcare obligations. This also promotes access to justice because homeowners are more likely to be able to retain an attorney to help them in such hearings because it reduces travel time.
In 2020, the General Assembly passed special, emergency legislation that helped for association boards to meet and conduct business during the coronavirus epidemic. I posted analyses of that in my May 2020 post, Virginia Temporarily Relaxes HOA Open Meeting Statutes for Coronavirus. HB1816 would work to make that permanent and more. It’s the “more” part that is a problem.
The problem with HB1816 is not that it facilitates use of these videoconference programs in HOAs is that it goes well beyond that. In conjunction with other changes, HB1816 seeks to broaden the definition of “electronic means” in Va. Code § 55.1-1800 and § 55.1-1900 to include “teleconference, videoconference, internet exchange, or other electronic methods.” Those statutes incorporate the definitions found in Va. Code § 59.1-480 of the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act. That statute defines “Electronic” as “relating to technology having electrical, digital, magnetic, wireless, optical, electromagnetic, or similar capabilities.” But the referenced statute doesn’t define “internet exchange” or “other electronic methods”. The definition as written is broad enough to encompass text message and email correspondence between board members, committee members and/or members. This is a terrible way for HOAs and condominiums to decide important questions such as enactment of million dollar budgets, to change rules to governing the use of land in the subdivision, or to impose penalties against an owner for an alleged rule violation. In many HOAs and condominiums, this would facilitate boards changing the rules on an informal basis, as they see fit. Founding Father John Adams believed that the USA ought to be “a government of laws, not of men.” In other words, everyone has to follow the laws (or the declaration or contract), including the rulers or directors. HB1816 would in many cases cause the POAA to reflect a public policy that the rules and standards in the governing documents simply don’t matter, its whatever the board wants. The is because HB1816 would remove statutory protections requiring HOA boards to follow their own rules and to not change the rules whenever they want to do something different.
HB1816 easily passed the House of Delegates and now sits in the General Laws Committee of the Virginia Senate. I hope that it does not get out of that committee, without changes to the definition of “Electronic Means.” Note that passage of this bill as written would not be “game over” for homeowners dealing with HOA bullies. But failure to fix the language would “bless” all sorts of mischief that needs to be stopped. Boards still need to follow the declaration and bylaws and the other protections of the POAA and common law. But legal reforms ought to make the law better and more clear, not the opposite. It appears to me that certain people are promoting this bill at this time to try to exploit the pandemic before it is over, by use of this bill which is ostensibly to help people do social distancing. For these reasons, I do not support HB1816. I think that the definition of “Electronic Means” needs to be revised, to only include technologies similar to Zoom, WebEx, MS Teams and the like, and to not include text message, chat rooms or emails.
January 28, 2021 Update:
On the evening of January of January 27, 2021, the Virginia Senate General Laws Committee reported out SB 1183 which appears to be a bill originating in the senate that is identical, or nearly so with, HB1816. This legislation has not yet been voted on by the full senate.
February 9, 2021 Update:
Around February 5, 2021, the Virginia Senate postponed further action on HB1816 and SB 1183 to the General Assembly’s “special” 2021 session which is essentially an extension of time for the “general” session.
Close of Special Session Update:
In the General Assembly’s 2020 Special Session 1, HB1816 was passed by both legislative chambers and signed by Governor Northam.
Referenced Legal Authority:
(the photo for this post is a stock image and doesn’t depict anyone having to do with this post)