Chapter TwelveIIIChapter Fourteen

13. Build a Website: Add a Voice of Reason

In a CID, the board of directors controls the flow (not the free flow) of information. The neighborhood newsletter is the sole propaganda device of the board; they use it to support their own agenda and they do not allow any complaints, criticisms, or dissenting opinions to be published in “their” newsletter. For those who like to play dictator, all that democracy business just spoils the fun.

But today, we can easily go over their heads for now we have the Internet. All over the world, information sidesteps tyrannical bullies at the speed of light⎯better make that the speed of sound; but that’s fast enough. With an end run around your board of directors, they can no longer hide their dirty deeds. Here's a link to my original Shavano Ridge website The Unofficial Shavano Ridge Website

durable dissention
Not only can dissenting opinions be heard, they can be heard indefinitely. A newsletter is published, not read, and then forgotten, but a website has staying power. A website gets published, not read, and forgotten. Then it gets stumbled upon, discovered, and, in time, it may even become influential⎯yeah, it could happen.

For those few brave souls willing to fight back, the website will prove to be the most powerful tool in your arsenal.

building a website: the nuts and bolts
Some of you may already have experience with website construction, and to you I say get busy! But those without previous experience are not really that far behind. Website construction isn’t that difficult and many of you may have all the tools you need right now.

the software
If you are using Microsoft Windows, and you have installed a full version of Microsoft Office, you probably have a copy of the Windows web site construction program already installed on your computer; it’s called Frontpage. If that’s the case, you’re ready to build your own website.

For help with that task, you have at your disposal the usual help menus within the program and numerous sources of information on the Internet. There are also many instructional books covering Frontpage and every other website construction program available. Many of these books can be found at your local library.

Before we move on I should point out that there are several other web site construction programs available if you are willing to spend a little money. The most popular are Macromedia’s Dreamweaver and Adobe’s Go Live. These programs operate on both the PC and Macintosh platform. The two most popular proprietary programs are Frontpage for the PC and, my favorite, BBEdit for the Macintosh. I should also point out that you don’t need any of these special programs to build a web site. If you’re interested in understanding how the web works then by all means, build a site by hand. All you need is a plain text edit program and a book on the Internet markup language called html. It’s not really that difficult to learn and you may even enjoy it. Some people even find it to be therapeutic.

free Parking?
Now, assuming you have your website construction program up and running, and you’re diligently working away on your new neighborhood web site, you will eventually have to park it somewhere on the internet. Once again, you may already have been provided free web space and not know it. Check with your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Many of them offer free web space to their customers. If your ISP does not offer free web space, you will have to buy it from a web hosting service. Most of them have plans for as little as $4.95 a month.

Let me pass along a word of warning concerning Microsoft’s Frontpage program. If you use Frontpage, you should check with your ISP as to whether or not they support Frontpage extensions. These are the little programs that run Frontpage’s hit counter and interactive pages like feed back (what I used in the USRW website for the Opinions Page). If you are going to use Frontpage, you will want to find an ISP that supports Frontpage extensions.

cyber style
In designing my website, I chose to go “plain wrap” all the way. It is about as simple and (yeah, I’ll admit it) as visually boring as a website gets. There is no flashy animation or stunning sound effects. Images are held to a minimum. The reason for this deliberate absence of polish is that I wanted my website to be easily accessible for those with outdated computers. Many of our residents were retirees, and I knew that some were using old operating systems. With this in mind I decided to follow the popular adage, “keep it simple stupid.” This might be something you will want to consider as well.

naming names
I have seen other neighborhood websites where the writers had named individual homeowners and board members in the articles they published; I chose not to follow this example, and I would advise you to do the same. I’ve already explained to you how skittish the homeowners can be if they feel they might be expressing an unpopular opinion, and I certainly do not want to discourage anyone from speaking out by exposing them to any possibility of public ridicule.

As for the board members, I never felt any of them ever acted alone, and therefore, I felt any guilt they were entitled to had to be shared among all members. Even when it was made known to me that one particular board member may have taken the lead in a particularly unreasonable act, I always felt they acted as a group and I always chose to identify them as such. In fact, “group think” would have to be a defining characteristic of any HOA board of directors.

As I mentioned earlier, in one-on-one conversations, they would always deny any responsibility for the groups actions and point the accusing finger at those board members not present. The thought of exposing anyone this fragile to the possibility of public mockery just reminded me of that old fable about breaking a butterfly on a wheel⎯what’s the point?

thou must not bear false witness
We all know now that George Washington never really whacked away at his father’s cherry tree; somebody just made that story up. For whatever reason, they tried to peddle fiction as fact. This is something you must never do. It’s to difficult to get neighbors interested in community affairs to risk losing what little interest you may be able to spark, not to mention your own personal credibility, by fabricating even the most insignificant of details in one of your web stories. Be 100% factual.

Once your website is published, your board will go into attack mode and it will get ugly (for an example of how ugly, have a look at our Opinions Page) and you will have to be prepared for that. They will try to discredit you in any way they can. You can’t afford to give them anything they could use to achieve that end. My advice is not to fight fire with fire but to stay above the situation and leave the lying, name-calling, and outlandish behavior your board of directors; believe me, I have never known one of these rogue boards to disappoint in that respect.

no homeowner left behind
Democracy, which is what you’ll be fighting for if you choose to enter the fray, must be all-inclusive if it is to be legitament. That means, unlike the board with their newsletter, you must not deny anyone the opportunity to express him or herself on your website⎯and that includes the board. Our board was a frequent contributor to the Opinions Page of my website, but ignored my offer to provide them with their own pages on the site where they could freely champion their own views. I think this old adage explains their reticence.

“Nothing more completely baffles one who is full of tricks and duplicity, than straightforward and simple integrity in another.”

Always keep them baffled.

what to include?
From the moment in June of 1994, when we moved into our newly built home in our newly built neighborhood, I began to notice some of our board members behaving in an irrational manner. One in particular would parade around the neighborhood like a B-movie version of a nazi field marshal. He was actually quite amusing at first. Then he came to our door and officiously declared that my wife could not park her car on the street. But our neighborhood was not gated, and the streets were city property and the city permitted street parking, so we ignored him.

Though we continued to park our car on the street, as did some board members, and he never repeated his demand that we move it, this was the moment I think our future troubles with the board became inevitable. These people do not get on these boards to be ignored.

There are two reasons I risk boring you with this seemingly insignificant tale: one is that it serves as an example of how board members will routinely try to mistakenly apply clauses they find in generic CC&R documents that do not apply to the situation at hand. You always have to watch them, which will no doubt give you plenty of material for your website. The other reason I relate this tale is because this one encounter with this misinformed board member put me on guard and prompted me to save every scrape of paper they ever published.

the dead files do the haunting
In hindsight, it turned out to be a very fortuitous decision, but I really don’t know, at that early stage of the game, why I thought saving these publications would be a good idea. Later, it turned out that all those newsletters, proclamations, and meeting minutes became the basis for my website. With these papers, I was always able to catch them in a lie or indefensible contradiction. On my website, the boards own printed words became a constant source of embarrassment. And this is why you should save everything they print. To this day, I still have every publication they ever printed.

You’ve already seen the example of how effective this is in chapter five where I caught them lying with an article they published two years before.

Probably the best example I have of how important saving these publications can be is that time I caught them admitting in writing that I had painted my house in accordance with there own recommendations. I’m sure they were quite surprised to find I had not only read this old newsletter but also kept it and reprinted parts of it on my website for all to see.

say it, deny it, then claim no responsibility
This same admission also served as one of my most revealing “integrity traps” when I confronted them with it at a meeting and they were forced to either act honorably and acknowledge their error, or act despicably and deny their own words. Of course they chose the later claiming the CC&Rs absolved of any responsibility for their words and actions. Yep, I got a lot of mileage out of that one.

This is why you should read and save everything your board prints; if your board is anything like mine was, you should be able to find at least one lie or dishonest activity or misrepresentation of the CC&Rs in every issue.

the Pinocchio factor
What you are doing with a website is giving your neighborhood some small measure of oversight over your board members. I called it “the Pinocchio Factor.” Every time I found that our board told a lie, my website grew, and grew, and grew, and so should yours.

history anyone?
Another thing you might add to your website is some background on the CID industry past and present. You can do the research and write the articles yourself, or you can use anything on this site you think your neighbors will find enlightening. There are also thousands of other sites on the Internet where you can find good material. Most of these Internet publishers are only interested in furthering the cause, and I have never been denied a request to use someone else’s article, but be sure to ask first.

become opinionated
Providing your neighbors with the ability to express their opinions in a public forum should be of primary importance to anyone considering going to the trouble of building a website. This is where everybody finds out exactly which way the wind blows, and it can blow quite hard at times; you must be prepared to weather these little storms.

Our board ask that I remove their names when they were used in homeowner opinions and, although I don’t like to edit the words of others, I complied with their request. However, I don’t recommend this dodge for the publisher of a neighborhood website. I don’t like the message it sends. It seems to me, if you are willing to take an active role in battling a rogue board, you are going to have to show you have enough confidence in your convictions to stand up for them when they are challenged⎯enough said.

little glass houses
I’m sure everyone (at least everyone over 45) has heard the old saying “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” I reserved my Glass Houses page for stories which exhibited our board’s tendency towards inconsistently applied policies and gross favoritism. They would regularly castigate homeowners for what they claimed were covenant violations. The issue I took exception to was that the board members were in violation, and usually to a much greater degree, of the very same infractions. Have a look for yourself. Glass Houses

If you keep your eyes open, you just might find incidents of this sort happening all over your neighborhood.

add a community conflicts page
The Community Conflicts page is where the dirty laundry is aired. This page gives your neighbors an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with your board or management company if they believe they acted inappropriately. Here, the homeowner can explain their side of a dispute, which is the side the opposition would very much like to suppress. Here is my example from my own Community Conflicts page.Community Conflicts

I recommend you include this option but I must be honest with you, in my neighborhood, publicly going against the board was more than any other homeowner was willing to do.

Many were truly afraid of board retaliation and felt that arguing their position in a public forum would just invite a lawsuit. Others felt they were unable to confidently express themselves in writing. Still others feared they would be ostracized if it became known that their opinions were not in alignment with that of their neighbors.

I understood their concerns, but I would be lying if I said I was not a little disappointed that so many were not willing to express publicly what they had expressed so forcefully in private. However, you may be living among a much more daring crowd than I did. Your page might fill up in no time.

But, in order for that to happen, the community has to know your website exists; you must sound the alarm!


Chapter TwelveIIIChapter Fourteen