They make rules. Their leaders are elected. You may pay them money on an annual basis, but only give them attention when they're screwing up.
No, they're not city or state governments. They're homeowners' associations, and in Newport-Mesa they're almost everywhere.
Although many residents know they pay their yearly HOA dues, fewer know the extent or limits of the organizations' power, HOA manager Marla Hemmel said at a Women of Temple Bat Yahm Meal and Spiel lunch Thursday.
The event was fourth in a five-part speaker series, said Tamar Brower, who organized the event. Other speakers have included a UC Irvine professor who spoke about her experience growing up in Mexico City as a Sephardic Jew, and a children's book author.
Hemmel is president of BHE Management, which manages about 25 communities, several of which are in Newport Beach.
"A lot of getting benefit from your homeowners' association is understanding it," Hemmel told the small gathering at Sam and Harry's restaurant in the Newport Beach Marriott.
About 38% of Californians (14 million people) live in communities with HOAs, she said.
In Orange County, there are about 5,000 associations, many of which overlap one another, as in the case of gated communities within gated communities.
HOAs were originally designed to "keep private communities private," Hemmel said.
But the HOA has become a kind of mutually beneficial approach to development. Cities or other local jurisdictions allow developers to build with the understanding that an HOA will help maintain infrastructure and amenities.
In a sense, she said, residents are "kind of taxed twice for these things."
The organizations vary broadly in scope and the way they operate, representing anywhere from less than a dozen homes to thousands.
Most, she said, rely on volunteer board members, who are elected according to the terms of an association's governing documents, often with the assistance of professional managers, like herself, to handle administrative issues.
Like any fiduciary body, such boards have a responsibility to put the interests of the group ahead of personal gain, but that doesn't always happen.
And in a system that is subject to increasing regulation at the state level, legislators don't always have a good understanding of the way HOAs work.
"The government doesn't want to officially oversee HOAs," Hemmel said.
Industry groups are working to educate board members and managers, she said.
Learning how their HOA works, she said, is one of the most important things homeowners can do to benefit from their associations — then get involved.