Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Price Of Freedom

"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."
--Thomas Jefferson

"Constant vigilance!"
--Mad-Eye Moody

I think I may have mentioned months ago that we had elections in our Homeowner's Association. At the time, I had mixed feelings about it. The previous board was generally slackadaisical (yes I just made that word up) and seemed disinclined to pester us about grass that was too long or cars parked in the street, etc. (But don't paint your shutters blue, because then they were up your behind immediately and relentlessly!)

I was concerned that our new board would be a bit more, well, I believe the term I used was Gestapo-like.

We didn't set out to purchase a home in a "Swim-Tennis" with an HOA overseeing lawn length and fence standards. But when Brendan and I found this amazing lot (wooded, with a church as our distant backyard neighbors, so little chance of a shopping mall going up) and a great floor plan (all open with windows across the back, overlooking our little piece of woods), the HOA constraints seemed minor. Kind of a pain, but doable. And for the most part, that's how it's been.

Every year, we've paid our dues, which are very reasonable by local standards: $385. We walk around our little pond almost every day, and even make it to the pool once in a while. So while a covenant protected neighborhood was not our first choice, but it's been okay.

And here is where I get to the point of this little post. I have learned a couple of very valuable lessons in the last few weeks. It's been brought to my attention (as of last week at our latest HOA meeting), by some of our new Board--the ones who will make you paint your trim--that the president of our old, lazy, seemingly apathetic Board, has been brought up on civil and criminal charges--felonies--for stealing approximately $600,000 over the last 5-7 years from our HOA bank accounts.


I confirmed the charges through our County Courthouse, which has a spiffy little online searchable database of public records.

Our total dues amount to about $140,000 - $160,000 a year. She has pocketed about $100,000 a year for the last 6 or so years. What the bloody hell.

And so here are my two important lessons:

1. While she of course is responsible for her own behavior, we--our neighborhood, myself included--made this embezzling easier for her because we weren't. paying. attention. In my case--and I know that many of my neighbors felt the same way--I didn't want to pay attention. It was too much trouble, really. I didn't care about the HOA, and was content to pay my fee and be left alone. Well, I got what I wanted--and most of my fees were misappropriated.

2. Bad Guys, the stuff of legend and much discussion around here on a daily basis, don't always look evil. Sometimes, they are nice ladies--mothers, wives--who live around the corner from you and garden. They know your kids' names and give you baby gifts. They look you in the eye and give you a friendly smile even as they are cheating you out of your money.

I'm mad. Our neighborhood is mad. The amenities we have are nice--but oh how much nicer they could be with that $100,000 a year! How much more could our homes be worth? Of all the unmitigated gall!

I'm also very, very sad for her two children, who are junior high/high school aged. These kids will see their mother sent to prison. I can't even imagine how awful that will be for them. And this woman will almost certainly go to prison, even if she can magically cough up $600,000+ between now and her trial.

Still also--I'm mad at myself and my neighbors. We could have prevented at least some of this thievery if we had done what some of our new Board members did--cared enough to get organized and demand an accounting of our money. I want to bake them all cookies or babysit their kids or something. They were amazing.

And I am resolved to pay more attention to such matters in the future. And this not only applies to my HOA, but in larger circles, too. In the last few years, I have consciously become more of an activist--in the political sense, in the philosophical sense, in the personal sense. I'm no longer too shy or apathetic or [insert excuse-of-the-moment here] to do something.

Sure, I can't monitor all of my politicians every second of the day--I have my own life to live. But I'm watching. I'm writing letters-to-the-editor (although it's been a while since I've done so). I'm writing my representatives. I'm a member of the only inclusive state homeschooling board. I'm writing on my blog. I'm talking to friends, family, and sometimes acquaintances or strangers about the ideas I hold and why. And I'm getting better at it--more confident and more fluent.

It's ironic that this HOA thing has exploded in the last couple of weeks, at the same time our country is undergoing some official Change. $600,000 wouldn't even register on a state, let alone federal, budget. So this is a good lesson for me. I will be watching and writing and thinking and talking. Because when people don't pay attention, coast through life, the people to whom we've delegated power over our lives may take advantage of us. And they might even look us directly in the eye, and smile at us while they're doing it. (Actually, I think that's a given.)

My eyes are certainly opened wide, and I'll be using them to watch carefully.


Mitch said...

I'm president of my HOA - almost by default. I showed up for two meetings about a year after I moved into the neighborhood, got elected to the board, and was immediately anointed President given that the other Board members already served in that capacity. That was 2002. I'm still Pres. It is a thankless job, and we only have 60 homes.

Residents typically want to be left alone, and as you mentioned, we generally do...except if they paint their house blue!

To compound things further, we have one resident who likes to complain to the Board, and take her complaints, if not resolved to State and federal agencies. She has cost the HOA a lot of $$.

Adding insult to injury, the State has passed laws making it almost impossible to collect delinquent dues or fines except when the home is, if ever, sold.

So, why do I do it? Because, if I have to live with an HOA (by choice), I want some say in what goes on.

Amy said...

Jenn, you continue to amaze me with your integrations. Thank you for drawing this connection between paying attention to your HOA and the eternal vigilance TJ spoke of. Well said. I wrote a whole post in respose here: