Are you one of those people who only think of the right thing to say, or at least something to say after the fact, when the conversation is over and you’ve either moved on to another topic or you’re retelling the story to yourself or others? Or maybe you stop yourself from saying what you were thinking because you took the High Road, or you knew it wasn’t a finished thought yet? Maybe you didn’t say something because you knew you couldn’t convince the other person so you let the moment go by.
A good Catholic upbringing, complete with schooling by nuns wearing the floor-length black tunic, scapular, and habit during my formative years, then a brief stint in the US Army, followed by a career in the apolitical, neutral judicial system conditioned me well to hold my tongue. I learned “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I learned that you can’t win a rational argument against an irrational person. I learned that one doesn’t always have all the facts or know what you know. And I learned (from The Gambler song) that sometimes you have to fight.
This week I chose to fight back, and it didn’t end all that well, unfortunately. I didn’t lose, but I did give up, for now, because I could see that the argument was going nowhere fast. I also didn’t feel great about the exchange; I was empowered for just a minute but that faded quickly. However, three days later, it still bugs the You-Know-What out of me, so I guess it is unfinished business I need to deal with … for my own sake, not his. Here’s my version of what happened; although I relied on a few screen shots, it’s likely there is some interpretation by me as to what was said or meant.
I believe in transparency and open channels of communication, especially in government, or in this case, a governing body. I have been told that I shouldn’t always give people so much information, but I think that people should get to choose what they do with the information, that my withholding it serves no purpose. So as the president of my homeowners’ association, I posted a status report regarding pool usage that I thought would be useful and welcomed by residents of my community.
There is some backstory that I won’t get into all the details of here, but it might help you to understand that we have a community swimming pool that was formerly used by both our HOA kids’ swim team and was also made available to a larger more metropolitan or community (area) competitive swim team. Our pool is typically open June, July and August, but because of the other swim team’s use, it was heated and available year round to them but not to our own families. That arrangement ended about three years ago.
It might also be useful for you to know that I am serving my third year of a three year term on the Board, all as president. And that we, like everyone else in the country, are suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that we are under restrictions put in place by the governor and our pool has not yet opened for the 2020 summer season a month after Memorial Day Weekend. We plan to open on the 4th of July, three days after we are allowed to do so, but still with some restrictions in place for physical distancing, sanitization, and screening for symptoms. (See how I tend to explain myself even when I don’t have to???)
So a few days ago I posted that the our neighborhood swim team was beginning practice, in compliance with the Governor’s orders and guidance on how to make that happen. And then I added that we hoped to open the pool to everyone else when the Governor authorized it, but that we would need volunteers to make this happen. So much for my good intentions.
Within about three minutes a man commented that we shouldn’t need volunteers, that that was what our HOA dues were for, that we should hire someone instead, that I had dropped the ball, that I was depriving families of the use of the pool which wasn’t fair since the swim team was going to use the pool. And then, after a barrage of questions, he said “this is a complete disgrace and you should be ashamed of how you handled this.”
Up until that last line, I was prepared to answer the questions included in his diatribe. But I guess my Better Angels were on break just then. When I read that last line, I couldn’t take it anymore. Never mind I had Covid Fatigue, I also had years of not saying what I think, of not defending myself publicly, of always trying to be politically correct and diplomatic. I finally reached a tipping point. I should be ashamed?!??
I started off by explaining as best I could how our HOA dues are among the lowest in town, and of his $38.83/month payment, only $5.69/month went toward pool expenses, how else the dues are prioritized in the budget, that the delay in opening was caused by the pandemic and not an arbitrary board decision, that we were doing the best we could. And then… then I got real. Here is exactly what I said next:
But if you still think your Board isn’t doing it’s job, then please show up at one of our meetings, or better yet, apply for a Board position. We will have 2 openings for 2021. It’s only a 3-year commitment for which you get paid $0 and get harassed by dissatisfied residents. PS-we have been asking for volunteers for several weeks already. Planning is hard to do when you have no one to carry out the job. Why don’t you pick up that ball that you think got dropped? My name is Pat Duggan. I am the president this year. If you want to talk more about who should be ashamed, give me a call.
I have been called intimidating in my professional career but it was rare that I was so direct and vocal. People may have felt intimidated, by my confidence and competence I presume, but that is different than my trying to be intimidating. (Well, there was the one time that a local newspaper quoted me without actually talking to me and I did give the publisher a piece of my mind, and when the state finance director tried to pull a fast one in a legislative hearing.) I tried to turn the other cheek, but it just didn’t work this time. My hand was shaking when I hit the Send button. Then I took a deep breath. I had a minute or so when I felt good about saying what I felt in the moment I felt like saying it. But then it just felt like a drag, a weight, a bad idea.
He immediately replied with more ugliness about my lack of leadership skills, suggesting I took kickbacks from the swim team, that I was incompetent, I was mismanaging the HOA funds, and more. I quickly realized I wasn’t dealing with a rational person. No answer would be good enough.
But his words hurt. I spend at least 10 hours a week, every week, often 15-20 hours a week, and sometimes I spend 40 hours a week, on HOA matters. We have made great progress in my three years. We’ve updated our Architectural Guidelines, we developed a new website, we updated our RV/Boat Storage Lot Rules and rates, we appointed a Grounds committee, we are updating our 5-year Capital Reserve Study (a/k/a depreciation, repair and replacement funding plan), and we are working with an arborist to develop a tree management plan. We changed property management companies, insurance agents, and lawyers. I am proud of what we have got going on, and for him to say those things about me was more personal than was called for or that I wanted to hear. I wasn’t looking for approval, but I sure as hell didn’t expect to be beaten up, spit on, and have salt poured on my wounds.
I wondered who this guy was and how to deal with him. He was now instigating others to jump on his bandwagon, and they did. Even two former Board presidents chimed in with questions they surely knew the answers to about the use of the pool by our local kids’ swim team, which I did not respond to. One then even went so far a day later as to specifically comment “Pat Duggan thanks for the non-reply.” How passive-aggressive is that? Another commented that she didn’t use the pool, but …. Instead of continuing to buy into their snarky theme, I restrained myself and did not respond at all. That might be worse; I don’t know.
Thanks to Google, I then found the original whiner. Get this – he isn’t even a homeowner in our community! For all his comments about what our dues should be used for, he doesn’t pay any. I think he is the son of a homeowner who might not even currently live here; this punk (see how I have slid down to his level with my own name calling?) may be a renter but I don’t know that for sure. I called him out on it, replying that his comments were inflammatory and since he was a non-dues-paying homeowner, they were also irrelevant. I asked him to take the discussion offline. When he shot back with more hostility, I exercised my right as an administrator of the page and deleted his comments entirely. That didn’t stop the others that were now picking up his bad habits. After three or four replies on my part to various commenters that the Board would have a Special Meeting in the next week, I stopped replying at all. I didn’t turn off commenting, as I think there may be good questions that can be answered at that meeting, but I’m no longer engaging in that nastiness.
I have had the chance to reflect on that exchange. I’ve been asking myself why I felt the need to defend myself, what buttons he pushed that sent me off toward that slippery slope, what I could have/should have said differently. I don’t have answers to those questions yet; I keep coming up with more questions, though.
So I sit here in limbo, with emotions like sensitivity, anger, sadness, disappointment, criticism, frustration, and resentment floating around. Those are heavy feelings. At the same time, I am grateful that I do not feel shame or embarrassment, as I am confident that I have done the right things, although I could have done them differently if not better.
I am also grateful I do not feel rejected, just misunderstood. I am one of those who tries to give the benefit of the doubt; in this instance, I am assuming this man just does not know what I know and he chose to strike at a target who happened to be me. He also does not have the experience I have in presenting a mature, reasoned argument. And he was hiding behind an online app where he was relatively safe, especially since he wasn’t even going to show up on my list of registered homeowners.
I still want this to be an inclusive community where members (residents) feel that their opinions count, that they willing to help further a sense of community, that they appreciate the bang-for-the-buck of low HOA dues, and that we all feel proud of.
What’s left is to ask myself: how does this get better? What do I see now that I didn’t see before? What will it feel like when everything is better than it is today? What will it take to allow me to embrace the necessary remaining work on the Board for the safety of our residents? What haven’t I discovered yet? I am trying to put myself back into a place of possibility, of feeling excited about the community I live in.
The good news is that I can share my thoughts, however scrambled they are, even though I no longer have Kevin as my sounding board. I do have three dogs who listen intently without talking back. I have a property manager who has more experience and other resources to guide me. And I have good friends who don’t live here, so they are not vested in the outcome of the situation except as it relates to me. Finally, of course, I have this blog, which serves as another public way for me to process and clarify my notions, perceptions, opinions, ideas, concerns, and beliefs. Hopefully, I will avoid any more “open mouth, insert foot” drama for both/all of us.
George Colombo said:
Pat, I’ve watched your tenure closely since it began and my response to what I’ve seen of your work has been nothing but respect, admiration and gratitude. You’ve done a fabulous job from beginning to end, not only meeting the challenges posed by various crises and contretemps but also putting in place a responsibility structure that’s open and inclusive.
I am sure that this kind of introspection is part of your nature, i.e. part of what makes you a terrific leader, but I’d urge you to not allow random critics to throw you off your game… especially when they’re not actual homeowners. As the old saying goes, “Noli illegitimi carborundum.”
I agree with Denise and I, too, commend you on those lines! You handled it well and should be proud for standing your ground and not holding your tongue. You are showing strong leadership and showing others what it would take to get things enacted and to take the reins themselves. They are lucky to have you, even if they don’t know it. Bravo 🙂
Denise Bridges said:
Pat, you are an incredibly smart and capable woman who is committed to doing the best job possible, as you have being HOA president. Frankly, I applaud you for your restraint. I thought your initial reply was right on target. If you don’t vote (attend meetings at least and hold office at best), then you can’t complain. And by all means, if you don’t live in the neighborhood at all (and therefore don’t pay dues), then you don’t get a voice at all. (By the way, our HOA dues are $150 a year, so yours are moderate but not “among the lowest in town.”) Nevertheless, I appreciate your transparency, even on this matter, and also your introspection.