Condo of Cards: Strata Councils and Political Masterminds

Neil P. Mangan, JD
January 19, 2015

Strata corporations are inherently political, and as a strata lawyer, I understand how politics can have an impact on strata corporation decision making. While advising strata corporations and owners, I sometimes come across council members more interested in holding power than making good decisions for their community.

In addition to keeping strata lawyers like myself busy, these local political masterminds often remind me of the popular Netflix series House of Cards. If you’re not familiar with the show, Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a cunning politician who uses charm and a notable lack of scruples to rise to the top. Underwood breaks the rules, attacks his enemies and does whatever it takes to gain power.

The following list may help you determine if you have an Underwood in your strata corporation.

1. Every Frank needs their Claire

Underwood’s wife Claire works as the director of a charity. While she may appear beyond reproach, Claire is just a cunning and savvy as her husband. Working together, they construct elaborate plans to seize power at any cost. Together, they are more powerful than either of them apart.

If you have a “Claire” in your building, she (or he) will be working in cahoots with a powerful strata council member to build support for their schemes. This person may be a spouse or friend and will have an unusual penchant for making any view but their own seem wrong. Note that this spouse or friend may have a particularly wholesome and trustworthy profession such as school teacher, charity worker or engineer (probably not lawyer, as this would be far too obvious).

2. Power to Control Council Members

In the first season of House of Cards, junior congressman Peter Russo is arrested for drinking and driving and other unsavoury crimes. Underwood comes to his aid and helps cover up the incident. Using this sensitive information and the personal favour as leverage, Underwood controls Russo and makes him a pawn in Underwood’s schemes.

If your building has an Underwood, he or she will be quick to help and long to forget. This person will gather and use secret information with ruthless precision and peddle their influence to put other council members in their debt. Remember that time when strata council decided to look the other way when it turned out that one of the council members had installed hardwood flooring without permission? Well, that might just be your smoking gun.

3. Property Manager as Henchman

Every great politician has an operative to work behind the scenes. Underwood has his chief of staff Doug Stamper, a man willing to do the dirty work and cover Frank’s tracks.

In strata corporations, strata property managers take their direction from strata council and help the strata council comply with the Strata Property Act. They also serve as a communication conduits between owners and the strata corporation. If you have an Underwood in your strata corporation, controlling the strata property manager will be one of their first orders of business. If your property manager takes personal directions from one council member rather than the whole council, it may be time to change management companies.

4. Master of the Vote

As the Democratic Majority Whip of the United States House of Representatives, Underwood is a master at winning votes. He uses this skill to control the agenda, bargain, undermine rivals and climb the political ladder.

Under the Strata Property Act, strata councils normally draft the agenda and the resolutions while deciding when to call most general meetings. If you have a strata council member who acts more like a political whip than an attentive owner, you may have yourself an Underwood. This would be a strata council member that holds an unusual number of proxies or who pushes for the removal of dissenting voices from strata council.

Do You Have an Underwood Problem?

Strata corporations are democratic institutions. They will always attract owners who want to be engaged in the decision making process. The difference between a politically minded council member with a strong vision and an Underwood comes down to respect for the law, good governance and acceptance of opposing opinions. If you have a council member that acts like a political bully, odds are you have an Underwood problem.

Luckily, there are many tools at your disposal. You can sharpen your political skills and work with other owners or council members to call a meeting to remove your Underwood from strata council. You can encourage your strata corporation to work with a strata lawyer to ensure compliance with the Strata Property Act. You can also consult with a strata lawyer to learn more about your rights as an owner and the legal remedies available to you.

If are living in a “Condo of Cards”, it is probably be time to push for change. At the end of the day, good governance saves money and leads to the growth of healthier communities. As Underwood says, “There’s no better way to overpower a trickle of doubt than with a flood of naked truth.”

For additional information on how to improve strata corporation governance and other strata property topics, visit my free online strata law guide at www.stratalaw.ca. Finally, always remember that this article provides general reference information, not legal advice. If you have a legal problem, speak with a strata lawyer.

Neil P. Mangan, JD
Neil Mangan is a Vancouver lawyer and owner of law firm Velocity Legal. Neil is the creator of www.StrataLaw.ca and the online editor of www.CondoManual.ca, British Columbia's most successful print and subscription-based strata law publication.