Hired to manage properties, the companies frequently tell board members to not talk to contractors or others outside board meetings.

Joanne Qiu joined the board of Waikiki’s Seaside Suites condo association in March, hoping to help her fellow owners solve problems and lower association fees. Almost immediately, Qiu says, she ran into interference from the condo’s property manager, Moana Siaki, of Hawaiiana Management Co.

There was the time, for example, that Qiu says she tried to check on a water heater after the building lost hot water for four days with no response from management. Qiu says Siaki shut down the effort. The rationale: Siaki said Qiu was a board member only during meetings, Qiu recalls.

The same thing happened, Qiu says, when Qiu contacted the building’s fire alarm company at a fellow owner’s request to see if a new alarm system eliminated the need for an expensive security service. Qiu said this, too, was deemed out of bounds.

Even something as simple as attending to a clogged trash chute was purportedly verboten.

“You have been advised on the role of a director, I strongly recommend that you adhere to that role,” Siaki wrote in an April email after Qiu and a fellow resident had solved the problem.

The apartment complex at 440 Seaside Avenue is the dominant feature in a scene from the corner of Aloha Drive and Seaside Avenue in Waikiki.
When a newly elected director of the Seaside Suites condominium board started trying to help solve problems, she encountered something others say is all too common: the property manager told her to quit talking to people and trying to solve problems. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

It was all baffling to Qiu, who says she was taking seriously what she thought were her duties to fellow owners.

“Every time I tried to help or do my duty as a board director, I got intimidated to back off and not to interfere,” she said in an email outlining her communications with Siaki.

Siaki did not respond to requests for comment.

Raising Concerns

Qiu’s story is all too common. Although elected board members are officially directors with fiduciary duties to fellow owners and their associations, hired management companies often take control, not just to run the properties but also when doing things like communicating with contractors. That’s according to interviews with current and former condo board members, as well as lawyers on both sides of disputes among associations, management companies and owners.

The issue creates tension between the firms hired to manage condos and and elected board members who live in the buildings and volunteer their time to help their neighbors.

There are no statistics on how often management companies shut down board members who are trying to help solve problems. But Terry Revere, a condominium lawyer who often represents condo owners, said, “that happens all the time, and it’s horseshit.”

The issue potentially touches much of Hawaii’s population. There were 1,826 condo associations representing 173,036 units in Hawaii in 2021, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs

Industry experts have estimated these associations govern some 360,000 people – or about 1 in 4 Hawaii residents. The vast majority of associations hire management firms. Major players are Associa Hawaii, Hawaiian Properties Ltd. and Seaside Suites’ management firm, Hawaiiana.

Among those promoting the idea that condo board members have limited power outside of the board room is Jane Sugimura, a condominium lawyer who frequently represents management companies and boards in disputes with owners. She acknowledged that “not everybody agrees with me,” but she said board members shouldn’t talk to fellow owners, contractors or just about anyone else about condo issues.

“Once they leave that meeting, they’re no longer a board member,” she said in an interview. 

“If you have a concern, you bring it up at the board meeting,” said Sugimura, an influential voice in the condo industry, as founder of the Hawaii Council of Associations of Apartment Owners and host of “Condo Insider” on the ThinkTech Hawaii Youtube channel.

“That happens all the time, and it’s horseshit.”

Terry Revere, condominium lawyer

Only the management company or site manager are supposed to communicate concerns with the contractor — not individual board members, Sugimura said. The board member should contact the site manager or property manager with concerns, as any resident can do, Sugimura said.

“If there’s a problem she observes, it’s OK for her to go to the proper person,” Sugimura said.

Asked whether such prohibitions were spelled out in Hawaii’s condominium law, in condo bylaws or house rules, or anywhere else, Sugimura said they are not.

The issue, she said, is that such governing documents simply don’t give board members the right to act outside of the board meetings. Only the board president, as the association’s chief executive officer, would have the power to do anything outside a board meeting, she said. The burden should be on the board members to prove they have the power to do even seemingly benign things like helping unblock a trash chute or talking to a contractor, Sugimura said.

“If you want, show me where you have the authority,” she said. “You don’t have it.”

Likewise, she said, board members have no duty to ferret out problems.

“Nowhere am I told I have to go and start investigations,” said Sugimura, who is also president of the Pearl One condo association.

‘Eventually Good Board Members Leave’

For board members, being stopped from talking to fellow owners or contractors about problems presents a basic problem, says Michael Eaton, a board member of the owners association for Hidden Valley Estates, a community of garden-style apartment buildings in Wahiawa. 

Eaton said he has to talk to people outside of board meetings to understand issues facing the community.

“If I didn’t talk to certain people, I would have no idea what’s going on,” said Eaton. “Nobody would know what’s going on.”

The prohibitions go beyond things that might be considered board actions, said Lila Mower, a former board member at Nauru Tower near Ala Moana who also works on condo issues as president of Kokua Council.

“They’ve muzzled us – not because we’re doing board business, but they’ve just muzzled us as neighbors,” Mower said. 

The situation often pushes board members to quit, she said.

“Eventually good board members leave, not because we don’t want to be good neighbors,” she said. “We want to fulfill our responsibilities. But what can we do?”

There’s another problem with board members being required to communicate problems only to management companies and site managers, said Rhonda Campbell-Sutton, a director on the board of Dowsett Point condominium in Nuuana.

“What if your complaint is against the property manager?” she said. “Then what do you do? You have no recourse.”

Rhonda Campbell-Sutton, a board member of the Dowsett Point condo association, said board members often have no recourse if they have a complaint against the condo’s management company. (Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2023)

As Sugimura sees it, the issue isn’t that people are trying to be good neighbors, but the opposite. Often, she said, board members misuse their authority to harass contractors and others. 

“There’s something called micromanagement or harassment of staff,” Sugimura said. 

“The bottom line is, there are board members who will tell people how to do their jobs because they’re board members,” she said. “And that’s a no-no.” 

Revere, the lawyer who represents owners, dismissed the idea that all board members must be shut up completely to prevent bad board members from abusing their power.

“If a particular board member is actually harassing somebody, it can always be dealt with,” Revere said in a text message. “But to do a blanket policy of owners can’t provide feedback or talk to another person is a ridiculous prior restraint on free speech.”

Board Charged Extra For Invoices

For her part, Qiu says Seaside Suites’ property manager, Moana Siaki, hasn’t been very helpful when Qiu has gone directly to the property manager and sought to put items on the board agenda: exactly the sorts of things Sugimura says board members are supposed to do.

When studying condo financial records, Qiu said, she came across one charge to the association of $7,000 for purported air-conditioning repairs for an owner who later told Qiu he knew nothing about such work. 

The charge was troubling for Qiu, who said she pays a $1,000 monthly maintenance fee for a property with no pool or other amenities except for a grassy, park-like area on Ala Wai Boulevard. Part of her goal as a board member, Qiu said, is to get expenses under control. To that end, Qiu asked Siaki to add the item “invoices” to the agenda of the next board meeting.

“The board should have copies for all invoices,” Qiu told Siaki. “So we understand the expenses and budget better in the future. We can use a shared google drive folder where Hawaiiana can drop all invoices and give all board members access to it.”

Siaki’s response: “HMC does not ‘drop all invoices’ into a shared drive. Should the Board want copies of invoices, please note that there will be additional charges from accounting for researching and copy charges.”

The response left Qiu frustrated. The management company and its contractors have to account for the work they claim to have done, she said.

“What exactly did you fix for $7,000?” she said. “You have to give us detailed explanations.”

It makes Qiu wonder.

“First, they’re not helpful,” she said. “You want to go deeper: I think they’re hiding something.”

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