As the covid-19 pandemic has driven us all back into our homes, the Internet has become a vital tool both in working from home and managing our strata schemes.
In most if not all territories, owners can now meet virtually and vote electronically. Needless to say, there are some smooth operators in strata who have seized the opportunity to slip a few contentious issue through, under cover of covid.
To be fair, many people have been too concerned about their own domestic challenges to pay too much attention to the machinations of their strata committees.
Add to that, the fact that the majority of owners tend not to get involved in, or even make themselves aware of what’s going on in their building.
As wee discussed in the latest Flat Chat Wrap podcast, this lack of engagement, allied to the distractions of our changing world, have opened the door to all sorts of dubious dealings, and they could come at considerable cost to the community.
One reader has written about restrictive by-laws that seem intended to plug gaps in the laws around short-term letting.
Another has complained about a decision to spend in excess of $300,000 on new windows for his block, a special levy approval that has been lying in abeyance for several years, waiting for competitive quotes.
Despite claims they could get the work done for $100,000 less, the original quote was suddenly accepted at a recent online meeting, the validity of which is now being hotly disputed.
The need to replace common property windows isn’t challenged and the quote accepted may be the best price available, but the combination of the timing of the decision and the amounts involved do raise concerns.
Across strata in all states and territories, the potential for rushing electronic approval for everything from favoured projects to ill-considered initiatives has clearly increased.
Opportunists who want to exploit any lack of close oversight could be having a field day. Add in the effective quarantining of some tribunal systems, where hearings may be scheduled months after initial complaints, and the damage could be irreversible before anyone even notices.
There is another problem with electronic engagement with strata committees – and that’s the pre-meeting vote. As Strata Answer’s John Hutchison pointed out on last week’s Flat Chat podcast, owners are now voting before the discussion, rather than after it.
It’s a tricky balance and it has implications far beyond the current pandemic. There are many owners in strata who see their main democratic function being to not rock the boat (or allow anyone else to do so).
The thinking, such as it is, is fairly clear. Disruption could affect the smooth running of the block and that could affect their lives, while excessive dissent could affect the reputation of the scheme and therefore the value of their apartments.
So owners will often go along with the prevailing view of the strata committee (or the individuals who dominate it) rather that examine issues too closely or challenge decisions too strenuously.
Getting back to the new age of electronic communication, state governments could amend their regulations to put a financial cap on decisions that can go to pre-votes, electronic voting or online meetings.
Perhaps anything costing more than a certain percentage of the annual levies has to at least allow for prior discussion via a dedicated forum. That could be via submissions to a website or a Zoom webinar or some other process.
Whatever the means, plenty of easily accessible technology now exists to allow re-engagement of strata communities. It should be an opportunity to have more transparency, not less.
A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.