TALES FROM THE COOP foody.org/coop.html
THE FAUX FUR FLIES
The meeting was thinly attended, though there was the promise of discord. But first we talked about beer! Was there any policy on it? asked a new member. Everyone laughed. Joe Holtz, chief coordinator since the days of yore, said that a referendum in the days of yore had voted down beer. The thirsty member asked how we could get some beer. Holtz suggested proposing it at a future General Meeting, although since a referendum had voted it down, it might take another mass vote to bring it back.
Coordinator Mike Eakin's financial report was boring, as it should be. The food coop tries to break even: too much profit or loss means the books need to be better balanced. He said membership is finally increasing. Electromagnetic Israel asked whether we could stop searching shoppers' bags, since shrinkage (loss of goods) was less than 1 percent. The coordinators replied that 1 percent of millions of dollars of sales was quite a bit, and that to not check bags would invite theft.
A popular senior coordinator sadly said that she had decided to become a part-timer, despite Holtz's attempts to cooperatively manacle her to her desk.
Someone from the Marketing Committee listed many coop appearances in media, plus upcoming events for First Night and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The litany was dull but showed great promotional activity. Financing the coop's expansion will require many more members. The marketing rep implied that the recent small increase, mentioned in the financial report, was to his committee's credit. But when a member asked how many new Latin members were expected, the rep said that his committee's people weren't statisticians. An audience member asked how long the committee has existed -- two years -- and noted that total membership had dropped since then.
The next committee report, from the Project Development Team of the Building Next Door, took over almost the whole meeting. People were hungry for information, and were worried about new developments. The team member promised a long report but also ended up answering endless questions, gamely suffering the slings and arrows of outraged vegetarians.
In the last Building Next Door news, the Project Development Team was deadlocked with the coordinators over whether to include a skylighted atrium. The team and most of the membership would love to see natural light in the coop's new lobby. The atrium would expose wood beams in the new building, once a carriage house. The coordinators, whose offices are more cramped than the rush-hour Lexington train, want that hundred square feet to hold work space, not light. Sacrificing an atrium would also help divide member and coordinator offices, allowing the latter to labor in relative peace.
Those who presented the two competing designs a month ago had said that one final plan was needed for approval from the New York City Department of Buildings. But the atrium issue is still unresolved, and the buildings department has not yet approved construction. The bank will loan the coop money, but won't commit before the buildings department's approval. The owner of the Building Next Door wants to sell it to us, but we can't close without the bank's commitment letter. Finally, the bank will not loan enough money for both buying and renovating the building as planned.
The Project Development Team member -- who said that the bank read the coop newspaper, implying that internal dissension was watched -- was optimistic that the atrium issue would be resolved the next week. But she was pessimistic about the team quickly cutting costs. These are desperate times. We've already missed one deadline. We need to buy the Building Next Door, a rare and easy chance to expand the coop, from its owner before he gives up and instead sells to someone else. But if costs can't be cut enough for immediate renovation, the coop may own a temporary white elephant. We won't even know yet exactly what the costs will be.
Besides settling internal coop arguments, the team must also battle pesky bank micromanagement. The bank wanted power over personnel decisions; the team said hell no. But the bank demands a 1.1 debt service ratio, meaning the food coop's net income must be 1.1 times its ability to pay off the loan. At first, this monkeying with the overall coop budget looked scary, but Mike Eakin said he adjusted his projections till it was no longer a problem. He also defended the bank, calling them nosy but reasonable. The team member said that the bank would be flexible if the coop failed to reach that ratio. The bank, if inflexible, could demand full payment or insist on oppressive decisions like cutting costs, getting people to buy more (maybe by selling beer), increasing the markup (which no one wants), or cutting salaries (Eakin choked on his food at the last suggestion).
A member asked why this Building Next Door committee's cost predictions were exceeding its predecessor committee's initial feasibility study. That study had led to the referendum that overwhelmingly approved of the purchase. The rep said that the first study was expected to have been rough. It was wholly volunteer and also had to consider three lesser models, including the no-growth model in which the coop buys no new space and just sits with its cooperative thumb up its ass. The current team was trying to match its predecessor's goals, but now that it had an architect and engineer, this was the real feasibility study.
Who has the authority to decide feasibility, she was asked. "You looking at me?" she replied. "Well, I'll take a stab at it, and then welcome additional" -- she paused -- "stabs." The earlier group wanted to ensure the coop's financial stability, to not force price increases, and had assumed a certain level of membership growth. Her committee was responsible for implementing the previous one's goals, she said. But she noted that the guidelines were rough and conditions are shifting. Now is the time to evaluate design features and to add or delete them. Some things shift for the better. The earlier group had counted on far fewer member loans, but many members are now loaning money.
When a member whined that he would leave if we didn't begin another agenda item on boycotts, we talked about those instead. But carnage came later when someone asked if the board of directors was monitoring the fast-paced Building Next Door situation. Board member Eric Schneider said that the board was informed. Board member Electromagnetic Israel demanded that Schneider not include him in that statement. "But I talked to you on Sunday," Schneider said plaintively. "Okay," he continued, "all board members except Israel have been apprised."
Israel retorted that he'd been apprised "to some extent" but only as an interested member, and that as a board member he would violate the coop's conventions if he did anything besides vote after a General Meeting. Board member Doyle Warren lectured Israel, saying that directors are on duty "24 by 7," that the coop lawyer had confirmed this, and that they had needed to act upon something but had not done so. "Could you explain what you mean?" board member Melinda Marx asked archly. "This is a putsch attempt!" yelled Israel. Voice quavering, Schneider said they had a responsibility to survey coop operations. "Using our power with a modus operandi is not legitimate," answered Marx, who'd by then drifted away to the far end of the room. "Could you explain what you mean?" Warren asked archly.
The meeting closed with horrified and curious chatter about what the hell the directors had been fighting about. But no one was told what. Rumors will spread about the board member catfight. This may increase General Meeting participation, a good thing. But future hostile squabbles may drive people away from the GMs, and I'll end up writing more of these dispatches instead of doing something more fun, like getting laid.
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