TALES FROM THE COOP foody.org/coop.html
THE COORDINATOR STRIKES BACK
People used to tempeh now smelled blood, and were drooling for it. At the General Meeting two months before, the Project Development Team had explained the complications of buying and renovating the Building Next Door, and had said it was still deadlocked with the coordinators over design. Then followed a cryptic board-of-directors shouting match. One week before this month's meeting, El Maximum Coordinator Joe Holtz announced in a well-buried Linewaiter's Gazette article that he had dissolved the PDT. And the Building Next Door's owners had begun been throwing out rugs. What was going on? Were we in deep yogurt, or would we be selling more of it?
Sensing the storm, the chair asked for tolerance. Coordinator Mike Eakin, in the spotlight since some PDT troubles had apparently revolved around him, stiffly delivered the financial report. He said that growth is up as expected, and that member loans are well above the projections of the PDT's predecessor Location Study Committee.
Then Joe Holtz took the mike. The room hushed. He announced, to heady applause, that the Building Next Door had just been purchased for $867,500, and that the Department of Buildings had finally okayed the plans. Holtz thanked the coop attorney, and the board members who were the coop's vice president and secretary, for their hard work.
Holtz then thanked the Project Development Team for its efforts. But he said that the PDT had been unable to function well plan or frugally enough, and that he had tried hard, but that since the team could not "act cooperatively and in harmony," he had had to kill it. On whose authority, a member asked. Holtz said it was his right because the PDT hadn't been created by the General Meeting, that it was part of his job to ensure it functioned in the coop's best interest, and that he regretted not axing it sooner. He announced the names of other members who would now advise the coordinators on Building Next Door development, said design forums would be held, and defended the bank's intrusive plans to monitor the process.
Holtz warned that he had sad news. He said that the coop's president, board member Doyle Warren, had refused to sign the bank's commitment letter for the loan, and had even asked the bank officer not to close. Holtz said that the bank then called him and agreed to close if another coop officer would sign. Holtz then called board member and coop vice president Melinda Marx (who at the previous General Meeting had distanced herself from Warren and shouted accusations about agendas), and that Marx, after talking with Warren, had signed the commitment letter, closing the deal.
Holtz then brightly announced that checkout scanners would soon be installed. There was applause for this, and for the future ID cards whose mug shots will appear on the entry desk computer, so people can finally be admitted without their cards.
But attendees had other things on their minds. "Who is this Warren Doyle who jeopardized the whole process in the name of all the members?" demanded one member. Another was disturbed at the thought of a duck-duck-goose coop-officer approval system. Another then said he was dismayed that a committee member could be "uncooperative" by opposing the coordinators. Why, then, serve on a committee at all?
Holtz said that he too was dismayed, and said that the Project Development Team had gotten off to a rocky start in twice refusing to work with Mike Eakin. Again he regretted not ending it before.
Doyle Warren came forward and said that after Holtz had ended the Project Development Team in a "Christmas massacre," Warren was worried that when it came time to close on the Building Next Door, the bank might require an increase in our price markup, especially since the PDT's unresolved budget was $500,000-600,000 too high. He said he had called the bank asking them to delay the loan till the governance crisis was resolved. He told the bank that he would not sign the commitment letter, but that some other officer surely would.
Ernie Hurvitz, the second defrocked non-coordinator member of the PDT, contradicted some of Holtz's statements about how the PDT had worked on problems. The former PDT members distributed excerpts of past complaints from its hired designers, which worried about the obvious "evident polarity" within the PDT. The excerpts also exposed other problems, such as Eakin complaining too vaguely about an issue for it to be investigated. In addition, the coordinators insanely opposed building an air-conditioned machine room to consolidate the critical electronic equipment now scattered across the coop. The designers said Eakin felt "that the servers could just stand out on shelves," "contrary to normal, reasonable and customary facility planning," "contrary to conventional wisdom, industry standards, and good business practice." They even asked that the insurance company be alerted. Despite a well-attended design forum in which coop members overwhelmingly asked for aisle and checkout space and to shop in a "bright, cheery environment," the designers said they felt pressured to "cram more shelves and checkouts into a space that basically becomes a labyrinth, not a cool place to shop." Finally, Eakin wanted phone lines strung by members, rather than planning a wiring backbone ahead of time to accommodate future expansions.
The third axed member of the PDT, Lisa Nicolle Grist, blamed the committee's fragmentation and dissolution on governance problems. She said they were handicapped by its two coordinator members overestimating coop growth, underestimating project costs, and not sharing information with the rest of the team, and by the whole team lacking agendas, minutes, assignments, and a project manager.
In retrospect, she said, the PDT had no consensus on defining problems, never mind solutions. The board of directors -- warned by her of PDT problems -- couldn't act, and the staff didn't want to act, on issues that couldn't wait for the next General Meeting. She rejected Holtz's assurance that we could count on the bank to ensure project progress: "We're a coop. Coops don't enter into agreements diminishing their own democratic control."
Why was Eakin so troublesome? asked a member. Warren replied that he'd been leery of Eakin's involvement from the start, having seen the last expansion's "terrible recordkeeping," including the spending of a poorly documented $134,000, and spending on a structural flaw for which there was were no engineer witnesses and no coop attempt for reimbursement. He said Holtz had pledged to control Eakin's "excesses," but that working with him had proven more difficult than he'd imagined. Grist added that she'd fought both times to include Eakin, but had finally asked the Personnel Committee to review his performance.
The chair tried to move to the first agenda item, but members shouted back that Eakin should be allowed to respond. Instead another member, a former member of the Location Study Committee that had preceded the PDT, spoke to say that the LSC's concern had been that the coordinators, being mostly grocery managers, might not be construction experts; therefore there should be some checks on staff power.
The chair again tried to begin the first item, but board member Eric Schneider, who'd successfully gotten the previous speaker recognized, complained that we should still discuss why we didn't have a management team in place, and that Eakin hadn't had a chance to respond. But the audience voted down a motion to extend discussion. "Point of order!" shouted Schneider. "Is it really necessary? The others weren't," said the chair. "There are some legal issues that I'd to present that would end this impasse." "There is no impasse!" people shouted back, and the chair moved us on.
After all that, it seemed foolish to propose to raise the coordinators' salaries. But sneers quickly changed to gasps when the Personnel Committee said that their proposed raise of 4% would be the staff's first raise since 1985. Everyone was ready to award 6%, but the Personnel Committee rejected that friendly amendment, saying the coordinators themselves had picked 4% as being fiscally responsible. Speakers urged that the Personnel Committee be empowered to give raises at its discretion. When asked, the Personnel Committee rep said his group did not routinely evaluate coordinators' performance since committee members are not on site to monitor them.
All speakers praised the coordinators, especially board member Electromagnetic Israel, who ranted, "This is a pittance! . . . How can we talk about oppression in other nations out there when we're oppressing our employees here!" The vote for the 4% raise was 99-0 with 15 abstentions. Of the former PDT members, Hurvitz voted yea enthusiastically, Warren grudgingly, and Grist abstained.
Arguing over coop governance was the next agenda item, led by a well-composed and cute couple of members, one of them bearing the unfortunate name of Screwvala. They said that roles of the "incredible staff and talented board members" had become increasingly blurry, leading to "warped" responses to coop needs. The board of directors is generally a rubber stamp for the General Meeting, elected by Annual Meeting ballots packed by coordinator-held proxies. They don't give feedback after their votes and they need not be on other committees to keep them in touch with the membership. In the power vacuum between the board of directors and the infrequent General Meetings, the coordinators assume powers beyond their mandate. It was coordinators who decided to purchase, but not yet renovate for use, the Building Next Door. The membership had expected to do both. In other weirdness, we had just voted a 4% raise for the coordinators, a figure picked by the coordinators possibly without an accountant's oversight, a figure lower than what the GM wanted to award, and the membership can't even formally evaluate their work.
Much discussion followed. One member said that the directors should administer the coordinators. How would your kind of board have dealt with the PDT problems? challenged another member. Screwvala replied that such a board-administered PDT would have been able to take greater responsibility, with designed lines of communication with staff. In the deposed PDT, neither side knew what the other was doing, and there should not have been sides to begin with. Holtz is now announcing that members get to go to design forums. Fine, but that's not decision making.
After a brief squabble over extending the discussion -- it took two full votes, with many coordinators voting nay -- a member stood to say that he liked the coop the way it was, because he could get things there that he couldn't get at the supermarket.
The next speaker asked, more critically, "Why isn't this board of directors governing? The usual answers are that the board's a legal subterfuge since we want [to be governed by] a GM, or that this system is historic, how we've functioned since we were little. We've done fantastic things, but we've had problems. Joe got the vice president to sign when the president refused. Joe should've gone to the board to resolve the dispute. The board should have declared an emergency meeting.
"You're content because you like the way things go? You may have voted for a raise for coordinators who may have driven us to a terrible disaster," he concluded.
The next speaker was vice president and board member Melinda Marx. "It's irresponsible for members to call us a rubber stamp. It's libelous. It's irresponsible for people to call me nonrepresentative; I collected 200 signatures myself. The majority of people want expansion.
"I was depending on Doyle to close. I met for two hours with him. I asked if there was anything financially binding on him preventing him from approving this. Two hours with Doyle, and I found I wasn't hearing anything about is; it was about personal stuff. He has a ten-year unresolved issue with Mike Eakin. I spoke with Ernie. Both gentleman made it clear to me that Joe and Mike were incapable of doing the job, that they could do it better. That raised a red flag.
"I'm not a lawyer or a politician; I'm a teacher," she said demurely. Then she stared daggers at Warren and Hurvitz, and said sneeringly, "It's about power, and some people are not happy with others having founded the place."
A previous speaker, maybe Screwvala, ran forward to say, "If you don't like the term 'rubber stamp,' call it this: six people doing this every month," and he raised his hand skyward. Marx rushed to the mike to reply, but was shouted down by the crowd and ruled out of order by the chair, who closed discussion and said it was now announcements time.
Electronic Israel announced, to applause, his anniversary with his longtime partner Carl. Dame Yadda Yadda Yadda mentioned a war-tax resistance demonstration. The chair then closed the General Meeting, skipping the usual criticism/self-criticism coda, and started the directors' meeting, in which the directors ratify or reject the votes of the GM. Janitors peered through the door, eager to be rid of us. Holtz began the follow-up meeting with his usual reading of the bylaws, describing its duty to receive the advice of the members. The board members congregated up front.
As soon as Holtz finished, Warren announced that he wanted to make a motion. Holtz said Warren couldn't make a motion about something the membership [the GM] hadn't given advice on, and invited the chair to reconvene the GM. Pandemonium ensued, with Holtz and Warren standing silently near the mike, two feet apart but ignoring each other completely. Schneider danced forward to suggest that, as a compromise, Warren delay till the next month's meeting. Holtz said he didn't want to stretch the board's responsibilities. Warren called up the coop lawyer, a man unfortunately named Sandercock and one of two men in the room wearing a tie. Schneider introduced him emcee style. "Eric!" bellowed the chair.
Sandercock, after conferring with the alpha vegetarians up front, somberly described the role of the board of directors. Then he said that we tell the directors that they are responsible to the coop. They receive the advice of the GMs, and GMs publicize their agendas in advance so all members are warned about what will be discussed. But the Agenda and Chair Committees "have unfortunately not come to grips" with what is to be done in the board-meeting portion. Since the Agenda Committee cannot restrict the board of directors, Sandercock ruled, the board should be allowed to decide what action it will take. He didn't think that required a GM vote, though he admitted that some traditionalists might oppose that.
Holtz asked Warren if he had a motion relevant to what was discussed. Warren said, "I'd like the board of directors to vote on reinstating the Project Development Team." Some complained loudly that that hadn't been discussed. Schneider popped up again to say that his compromise would delay Board discussion till the next month. Members have a right to serve on the Building Next Door committee, he said, but let's not rush this.
The chair asked if a board member seconded this motion. "Eric, I love you," said Electromagnetic Israel. "It's your anniversary," protested Schneider. "I love Carl," said Israel, and everyone laughed heartily. "There is absolutely no justification for a Reichstag fire," continued Israel. (It sounded like "ragstock," not inconceivable in this natural-fibers crowd; he had to clarify that later.) "There is no emergency. There is no problem. I'm going to vote no to anything at comes on. . . . The membership has great wisdom."
"Any more discussion?" Joe asked.
"We have to be out of here!" yelled the chair. Schneider proposed a "compromised compromise": to elect a standing committee till we have a duly constituted one. The entire room shouted Schneider down, telling him to stop electioneering.
Holtz, ever happy to complicate an issue not in his favor, innocently asked Warren and Schneider whether there was one proposal or two. Warren said one: to reinstate the Project Development Team or a standing committee pending a duly constituted one. "That's not what you said before," howled an audience member, and Warren argued till he admitted he was wong, and he proposed his new motion, and Schneider seconded it, and the board voted 3-3, deadlocked into inactivity, with Holtz, Marx, and Israel as the naysayers, and Schneider grabbed back the mike, and people started shouting at him, and Schneider asked if Holtz had the right to vote on this since he had a conflict of interest, and there were screams, through which an incredulous Sandercock said that a conflict of interest had nothing to do with it, and the beleagured chair was bellowing that we had to vacate the room, and we all noisily stumbled out into the cold, cold night.
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