TALES FROM THE COOP foody.org/coop.html
I LIKE GOVERNANCE, YOU LIKE GOVERNANCE
The General Meeting began in a synagogue meeting room that was as hot as . . . no, that's not funny. But many windows were opened. The chair again begged for more chair committee members, and said that chairing meetings was fun and sweet. Many people laughed, knowing better.
In the anything-goes Open Forum, a member complained that we should still boycott organic grapes despite the United Farm Workers' apathy on the issue. He submitted UFW articles and a videotape narrated by Mike Farrell.
Another member asked if the next-door expansion would accommodate people like the sight- and hearing-impaired. The delayed, waffling answer was no, not beyond ADA-standard features to the elevators and bathrooms. But Building Next Door Project Development Team member Doyle Warren urged him to offer suggestions after the GM, and coordinator (staff member) Mike Eakin also said he'd also investigate what could be done earlier, like modifying some phones. (Five days later in the coop, I saw him running new wires through the ceiling while someone else installed a railing beneath the free member phone on the shopping floor.)
Bar-code scanners will be installed next month, said Eakin during the dull but positive financial report. This will speed checkout, reduce errors by members working checkout, and allow itemized receipts and better inventory tracking. But the lasers will scare technology phobes. Itemization will worry privacy activists. And installing scanners before the Building Next Door is ready bothers those who'd rather bundle them into the new building's costs.
A Cuban visitor learned a lot at the coop, reported a coordinator. A third of all Cuban produce is grown in urban areas, and Havana's director of agriculture came to see how we handle food distribution and compost.
The Agenda Committee said that after this meeting there were no pending agenda items. The news, mildly received, is a great achievement. The General Meeting, once suffering a four-year backlog of proposed agenda items, founded that committee two years ago to schedule items fairly and quickly, and the committee has succeeded admirably.
This GM's first three agenda items were to elect a coordinator to the post of coop treasurer and miscellaneous members to two committees. The chair spoke for so long about GM and voting procedures that I thought he was filibustering to avoid the fourth item, a coop governance discussion. But many people present were first-time attendees, and GM voting can confuse even GM veterans.
Coordinator Joe Holtz praised departing treasurer Bob Weisburd, a hardworking coop cofounder who was so close to the staff that I thought him a coordinator himself. In the name of the staff, Holtz nominated the office bookkeeping coordinator to replace him. This could be seen as an unjust power grab, the replacement of one stooge with another, a lost opportunity for a check against coordinator power. But no one complained. The nominee gave a speech, saying little more than that she understood the responsibilities. Warren asked what were her legal responsibilities. She said she didn't know. A bunch of coordinators and a board member popped up to say that there were none beyond avoiding gross negligence, and that the post was just a formality for the sake of the outside world, which needed signatures on stuff. When Warren was up for election for the presidency of the coop, he had characterized officers' responsibilities just as blithely. But that was before he was tilting against the coordinators in the design battle for the Building Next Door.
"This is bizarre. They're really doing this!" whispered one committee candidate, who ran unopposed but watched everyone receive a ballot with just her name on it, X it yea or nay, and turn it in. But everyone who was nominated got elected.
If the exchange of one treasurer stooge for another didn't raise any hackles, maybe the governance discussion would. Unfortunately, it was cooperative. Electromagnetic Israel launched the talks, first saying that he spoke as a concerned coop member, not as a board member. What are the pros and cons of our system? he asked. Is General Meeting attendance adequate? Are we vulnerable to CIA or LaRouche takeover? How many people really want change? How do we protect ourselves from the "small percentage of members with excess emotional baggage" who can cause conflict or at least "drain our energy"? He closed by stressing his "minimalist" board member position, even though he'd said he'd spoken only as a member. "I respect the fifty people I see here; I can't imagine going against them. You have a lot more intelligence. . . . The board is [only] a legal necessity."
One member said that GM underattendance (out of our total membership of 5,400; our attendance that night of around fifty was robust) could come from avoiding our alternative mission. He said that "Good food at low prices for working members through cooperation," the informal slogan that the coordinators prefer to the preachy official mission statement, was too vague. The chair replied that that "enough" people wanted such clarification to vote for the official mission statement. (If you consider 85% of a crummy 16% of the total coop voting for the mission statement "enough," fine with me.)
Eakin said that meetings had gotten bigger, saying we had expanded from a little meeting room in the coop itself to this ballroom. "What is so broken?" asked another coordinator. Complainers are abstract and don't address issues, he said. His complaint was disingenuous. Had any opponents been there, they could've offered often-repeated specifics: staff packing of GMs and of the board of directors; the coop's commercial rather than alternative emphasis; little member review of staff or GM-approved committee members; overspending for the past expansion; growth issues for the new expansion; yadda yadda yadda. "When you try to fix something that isn't broken, you may break it," he finished.
A member who absolutely oozed type B personality insisted soothingly that he wanted to play a small role in governance, and that governance was fine anyhow. We don't need more staff oversight, said another: we're here to support a food coop, not to make life-or-death decisions.
Some newbies were amazed at how pleasant this meeting was: they'd been dreading it. "Older" voices had a bullying reputation, they said, and not only at GMs. One newbie said that such a coop veteran had abused her during her workslot for stacking recycled cardboard horizontally instead of vertically. Another newbie had been told at her orientation meeting -- by the orientation worker -- that she needed a better reason for joining the coop besides buying better food. Some newbies didn't feel oppressed but did feel small, like they were just numbers in a huge throng of other members.
"Older doesn't necessarily mean nastier," advised a coordinator who did admit that the veteran members could get pretty proprietary. Grouches were part of the bell curve seen in any group, added the chair: the cranks may get a lot of notice, but they are small in number, only a fraction of the whole.
I agree with that. And so does most of the coop. Members aren't apolitical: they're an amazingly varied lefty population, plus some conservatives such as Lubavitcher religious nuts. And they vote with their dollars, as Eakin pointed out, supporting the status quo. But this GM discussion seemed complacent, like talking about racism after black people didn't bother to show up. The crazies are still out there. Even when some of them criticize governance because of personal dislike of staff members, or because they haven't taken their lithium, they do raise real issues, which should not be dismissed out of hand just because their advocates aren't there at the time.
Back to list of dispatches.