Rant: To the barricades … or the pub?


Another week in StrataLand and another selection of questions on Flat Chat – some new, some returns to old favourites and a few that are frankly well out of left field (see below).

The disappointing news this week is that the long-awaited strata reforms will have to wait a little longer.  There’s more on that in next week’s column in Domain in the SMH but remember where you read it first.

And I have a confession to make:  for the first time ever, I didn’t bother to send a proxy let alone attend my scheme’s AGM. All you Flat Chat Faithful who imagine my building must be perfectly run and trouble free, think again.  I know your pain because I have walked in your shoes.

Prior to the AGM, we had the annual ritual scare campaign that there might not be a quorum – something that has never happened in this block in its 15 year life –  which resulted in the chairman, as usual, getting the ‘donkey’ proxy votes  plus the votes of people who support him and can’t be bothered going to one meeting a year (hypocrisy alert!), adding up to more than half the building.

So that was it: all over before it started. The quorum was comfortably reached and, purely by accident, of course,  the chairman could out-vote everyone in the room put together.

So the same old faces elected themselves on to a committee that seems to have, not surprisingly, run out of energy and ideas (but which hangs on to power with the grim tenacity of a boa constrictor).

They even had the hide to declare in the agenda papers who they would be electing as office-bearers, before the owners had a chance to vote them back in.  Not that we actually had a chance.

Proxy farming is done so efficiently here that the committee should be entitled to Primary Producer tax benefits, although we are far from alone in that regard.

Proxy votes are the curse of strata – and I am referring to the whole of strata here – and once a “my way or the highway” chairman or woman has corralled the votes, they are almost impossible to dislodge.

In a best-case scenario, proxy votes help those who can’t attend meetings to support people who share their views about how the building should be run.

Worst case, they hand all the power to one individual who can quickly become more concerned about using and holding on to power than running the building properly.

It’s a curse that afflicts may political leaders – they honestly  see it as their civic duty to make sure they are in power because they genuinely believe anyone else would stuff things up.  But to stay in power, they have to make sure every alternative view is silenced.

Good ideas are crushed before they are even discussed, the EC minutes are skewed to one point of view, good people are kept off the committee, ‘like-minded individuals” are secretly recruited for vacancies before they even arise, and seriously nutty ideas get way too far down the track before someone points out that the Emperor may be in the nude.

Just having access to the email addresses of all the owners – something privacy laws don’t allow the rest of us – is a huge advantage for a chairman or secretary who wants to silence or undermine their critics.

But if you are going to be the only voice in your Owners Corp, you have to get it right every time.

A couple of years ago our committee voted against installing solar panels on our massive flat roof because it would “cost more to pump the water on to the roof than would be saved in energy”. In other words, they couldn’t tell the difference between a domestic hot water system and electricity generating photo-voltaic cells that could have run all our internal lighting and then had enough power over to sell to the grid.  Worst of all, they wouldn’t listen to anyone who tried to explain.

Then there was the fiasco of the “roof car”.  Our frankly crap developers did not include any way of accessing the sides of this 20-storey building.  Seven years ago, advised by my building engineer friends, I suggested a slander rail off which abseilers could dangle – a system that was increasingly being employed elsewhere.  This was laughed out of the room and we then embarked on an extraordinary adventure that would have seen rail tracks and a crane installed, requiring the reinforcement of the slabs for the roof and the top two floors.

More by luck than judgement, this extraordinary plan was abandoned.  Then, guess what, someone came up with the idea of a rail off which abseilers could dangle, a system that cost a fraction of the roof car. It has since been installed and works without a hitch (no pun intended).

I only realised later that the problem wasn’t that my idea was bad – it was that it was my idea. If only I had persuaded someone else to suggest it, we would have had it five years earlier.

If this sounds like sour grapes, I guess there’s an element of that.  But frankly, I wouldn’t be on this committee for quids. In fact, I declined an approach by committee members to lead a coup a couple of years ago.   Thanks, but no thanks, our Dear Leaders can look after the building – I’ll take care of you lot.

Why? Because I’ve been through all  that before and it can get very ugly, very quickly and, sometimes, the end result isn’t worth the grief required to get there.

Setting aside notions of right and wrong – at what point do you say the situation is so bad that you are going to cause a huge amount of disruption, anger and angst to put things right?  Going to the barricades against an entrenched committee is no picnic and the reverberations may be felt in your building for years, so things have to be really bad and. in my block, they simply aren’t.

Thus my compromise was to boycott the AGM, an event that I’m sure passed without notice or, perhaps, with relief.  Had I gone, I would have felt compelled to stand up and correct every non-fact and wrong-headed opinion, any false procedural move or snide comment.

From what I hear, I would have been up and down so much I wouldn’t have needed to go to the gym for a week. Even the state MP who lives in our block was shocked – and he works in Parliament! As for sending my proxy, why waste a piece of paper on a vote that wouldn’t count anyway?  Save the trees!

And, to be honest, it’s not that the building’s particularly badly run, it’s just wrongly run.  None of what they do is illegal or even hugely wasteful –  it’s just not how strata schemes are supposed to work. So roll on those long-awaited and much delayed strata law reforms that will outlaw proxy farming (at least, as we know it) and everyone will be a bit more accountable.

And, hey, while the democratic process was taking another spin through the mangle, I was enjoying a very nice glass of chianti and a bowl of pasta with my beloved, so I reckon my no-show was a win for everyone.

Enough of my trivial woes. Here are a some recent vexed questions and tricky issues from the Forum.

When a property manager is given free rein by absentee investors HERE

What kind of tax deduction can you make from your home? HERE

What do you do about bikes parked on common property? HERE

Can the building manager prevent you from exiting through a fire door (when there isn’t a fire)? HERE

And, of course, there’s always more every day on the Forum

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