A reader who is a member of the board of a condominium association in Ohio recognizes that, as a board member, he is responsible for making sure that the association's bylaws are followed.
One of those bylaws requires anyone buying a unit in the condo complex to pay $1,000 to the association's reserve fund. Wanting to know if a unit currently being rented to someone with an option to buy had actually been sold, the board member accessed the county auditor's Web site.
His search revealed that the unit had not been sold, so the association was not due the $1,000 fee. He discovered, however, that the condo's owner was receiving a 2.5-percent reduction in his property taxes because he stated that he occupies the unit ... which he does not.
This discovery leaves the board member in a quandary. Now that he has the information, what should he do with it?
"Is it ethical for me to notify the county auditor of the situation?" he asks. "Or would I be wrong in doing this?"
OK, no one likes a busybody. Few of us can stomach folks who stick their noses into other people's business. But an accidental discovery during a legitimate investigation is a different story from rummaging around looking for dirt.
So long as the board member did not break any laws by accessing the county auditor's site, he has every right to be concerned about what he found. If the condo owner is not paying the full property taxes due on the property, he is defrauding the community in which he lives, or in which he says he lives. That is not only illegal, but also unethical. His misrepresentation steals money from the community and forces others to pay more than necessary to run the local government's operations.
There is, of course, a risk that, if my reader fingers this owner, others in the condo association might turn out to be doing the same thing and, if so, surely wouldn't appreciate being called out.
That consideration should not stop him from reporting the scofflaw, of course. But the right thing for him to do, before reporting the condo owner, is to discuss the issue with his fellow board members. A good rule of thumb, when making an ethical decision, is to discuss the issue and possible responses with other stakeholders. They may offer valuable feedback both about the options in a particular situation and also about how it might affect the community more broadly.
The board might, for example, decide that it's time to remind all condo owners about the $1,000 purchase fee and also to point out that, if they are renting their units, they are not entitled to the tax reduction for residency. The board might feel that the best response is to tell the tax-ducking condo owner that the situation has come to the board's attention and that it will be reported unless he decides to report it himself -- and pay whatever back taxes are necessary -- by a specified date.
One thing my reader should make clear to the board, however, is that the option of not reporting the issue isn't on the table. If the board won't act on the matter as a group, he will do so as an individual.
Knowing that the law is being broken -- especially in this case, when the violation could directly affect the board's interests -- and doing nothing would make my reader and the rest of the board complicit in a situation that never should have happened in the first place. The question is not whether to sit on this information, in short, but only how to go about remedying it.c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)