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Access denied: why emails are a hot strata topic

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How would you feel if all the other owners in your apartment block were able to look up your email address on the strata manager’s files? Not keen? 

Okay, how would sit with you if you urgently needed to get in touch with other owners about a problem in your block but you were prevented from contacting them directly, because your committee didn’t want people to know about it?

And then, to exacerbate your frustrations, your committee was using its privileged access to email addresses to mislead owners about the reality of the situation while undermining your credibility.

Sound like a far-fetched conspiracy theory?  If only that were so.

I know we discussed this on the Forum a couple of weeks ago, then picked it up in last week’s podcast, but I predict this is going to be one of the hot-button issues in strata in the next year or so.

One state MP has already contacted Flat Chat to test the waters on this issue, after it was raised here and in the related column in the Australian Financial Review

To be fair, nobody wants their email inboxes to be filled with irrational conspiracy theories and defamatory claims about committee members with whom the writers just happen to disagree.

But information is key to decision making, so lack of communication with other owners can cost you dearly.

Invest or live in apartments for long enough and these issues will arise.  And there’s a chance that your strata manager or strata committee secretary will say other owners’ email addresses are for their eyes only, and definitely not for yours.

Privacy in strata is an illusion. Committees that make poor decisions, such as keeping levies unsustainably low to the detriment of repairs and maintenance, can use their free access to emails to promote their position and undermine opposition.

If there’s a self-interested strata manager in lockstep with the committee, they’re unlikely to change that. The same goes for rental agents who may be promoting an illusion that all is well to absentee owners.

That stranglehold on communication within a strata community can keep committees and strata professionals in power long after their use-by dates.

On the other hand, many investor owners have zero interest in the petty political machinations in their apartment blocks, just so long as their property is rented and the levies don’t get out of hand.

And if there is one owner with a bee in their bonnet, they certainly don’t want to  be bombarded with daily rants about imagined injustices?

So who can get access to owners’ email addresses anyway? Aren’t they private?

In most jurisdictions in Australia, owners in strata schemes are entitled to see all the records of their owners corporation or body corporate, with a few very exceptions, such as communications between the committee and their lawyers in cases concerning that specific owner.

In NSW, strata law demands that if you have an email address, you must register it on the strata roll, which is a list of all the owners and their contact details.

In turn, the strata secretary or strata manager should provide those details to any owner who asks for them – including email addresses.

The reality is often a little different.  One of the most commonly used software programs used by strata managers has a switch that hides email addresses when owners come to their offices demanding to see the strata roll.

Some strata managers will say that the list of owners’ email addresses belongs to them and not the strata scheme, and is therefore not subject to the rules of disclosure.

In Victoria, the strata register doesn’t require owners to provide email addresses and some strata managers argue that if there is no compiled record of them, apart from the one they keep for their own business purposes, it should not be freely available to all owners.

However, Vic owners are still entitled to see communication to and from strata managers and the email addresses would obviously be there if you were prepared to go to their offices and look.

Elsewhere in Australia, the position on email addresses lies somewhere between those extremes.

By the way, privacy laws with regard to contact details are irrelevant for most strata schemes, as they don’t apply to corporations with annual turnovers of less than $3 million. 

In times of strife, resident owners can find more direct means of communication, such as notes under doors, for instance.

But as a non-resident investor your legitimate communications with other owners, even for everyone’s benefit, could easily be curbed.

Would you risk knowing more about the workings of your strata scheme just to shut out the potential for serial pests’ emails to pop into your inbox with dread-inducing frequency?

One partial solution would be to install software that allows everyone to post information that is automatically forwarded to everyone else, apart from those who have opted out.

But the schemes that most need open communication programs are also the least likely to even consider them.

If you are concerned about the lack of communication withing your community you could submit a clearly argued motion to your next AGM, requesting the committee explores possible solutions.

For instance, either owners’ email addresses should be made available to other owners, or the strata committee should provide an internal forum where owners can express their concerns and other owners can be alerted when there are new posts on it.

But be prepared for a long and bitter battle as those who fear transparency most, and those who demand privacy most vociferously dig in. Just don’t become a serial email pest about it.

Or you could just wait for the next time your strata manager forgets to BCC a mass mail-out, then store the addresses away for future reference.

An edited version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

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