TALES FROM THE COOP foody.org/coop.html
LET'S COOPERATIVELY KILL ALL THE LAWYERS
The meeting was thinly attended, occupying few chairs in the vast, overheated Garfield Temple ballroom. Even the chair committee numbered one person instead of three. The reigning chair, usually quiet and jovial, was the most junior of his colleagues. I wondered how well he would do. No one imagined that his demeanor hid a fascistic will to power.
Joe Holtz reported that he'd been getting helpful feedback from shopping squads that were staffing the new checkout counters. He acknowledged the discomfort of it all, and thanked people for their patience.
A member complained that express lane was now a terrible place to work. At a time when the aging coordinators have implemented all sorts of ergonomic features elsewhere, the rebuilt express checkout now forces member express workers to face a corner, like bad children. "People are really angry about it," she concluded. Holtz replied that room had to be made for wheelchair passage since the new counters are wider: "You can't say 'excuse me' to a counter." A mirror has been added so the checkout workers can check out the people they're checking out.
Bribing more members into attending General Meetings was the first agenda item. Currently, members could skip one workslot in their lifetimes if they go to a GM. A coordinator proposed liberalizing that exemption to once a year, and increasing the maximum number of such attendees from 12 per meeting to 40. After little discussion, we voted and it was passed. No one knows by how much. The chair and his dragooned cochair did the usual yes-no-abstain counting of hands, and confirmed the numbers with each other before announcing the outcome, but all he said was "passed." He had none of the confident delivery that the more seasoned chairs use to cooperatively whip the crowd into shape, but his informal, "Okay, let's go" style was winning converts.
Item two was to approve the ad hoc group that had sprung from Joe Holtz's open forums as a formal Renovation Committee. Thirteen expert members had already been selected by attendees of those forums. Those thirteen members were divided into design, construction, and finance subcommittees, plus a secretary and a chair. Holtz and coordinator Mike Eakin comprised a staff subcommittee, bringing the total number of warm bodies to 15. Confirmation by the GM was necessary to make this Renovation Committee official enough not to be killed in the future by Holtz, who had been able to nuke the previous Project Development Team because of its informal origin.
The proposer, who was also the committee's "chairperson/mediator," introduced the item. She gave us time to read the four-page proposal with its names and CVs, which ranged from log-cabin-builder to investment banker.
The conflict-of-interest section drew criticism. "Maintaining 'unconflicted loyalty' while 'superseding any conflicting loyalty' is fuzzy," complained an audience member. The proposer assured her that the wording had come from the group's lawyer. I'm a lawyer, retorted the member, but she declined to rewrite it, urging that the counsel that had already taken responsibility for this project give clearer wording.
Someone from the nearby Ethical Culture church said she was disturbed by all the negative language, and pleaded for constructive, positive language instead. Eyes rolled. And although she made a good point about 15 leaders in a room needing better guidelines than what the proposal offered, she went off the deep end in urging that this committee have a strict administrator to keep all its free-range ducks in a row. Despite repeated assurances from the proposer that coop committees comprised motivated volunteers, she wouldn't stop talking about the need for a paternalistic supervisor.
Several people worried about the committee's vague structure. The proposer said that the vagueness ensured flexibility for problem-solving. Another lawyer member worried that a seven-person quorum was too small, creating the risk in a group of 15 that two opposing factions could meet, with each having standing. The proposer said that was ridiculous, that no committee meeting would have standing without she herself present as chair.
The argument went on, with audience members chiming in, some complaining that the nitpicking was "legalistic." Visibly impatient, the chair said the meeting would recess for five minutes to give the Renovation Committee candidates a chance to huddle and rework their proposal. As they did, the one of the audience's lawyers stepped to the microphone. "We who offer to fine-tune details usually get 'Stop with the legalistic stuff,' but this nitpicking is a valuable contribution," she complained. "It's disheartening to be routinely written off when we offer something that has a legal basis."
She continued by saying that other people offer their expertise without getting abused. Then the people in the Renovation Committee, who were clumped together in the rear of the ballroom, shouted that they couldn't hear themselves think, and stomped away to convene in a rest room. The remaining audience argued over the lawyer's soliloquy. Should it be considered part of formal discussion? No, she said it was an informal comment. Then why had she used the microphone? She should have waited for the the Renovation Committee to pay attention! No, they didn't want to; they were hiding in the bathroom. We discussed whether the feelings of other lawyers in the room had been hurt. The arguers split into two vague camps, one centered around the calm of the Ethical Culturist, the other more scattered as it grumbled about lawyers being know-it-alls with an answer for everything.
The Renovation Committee returned. It announced that the quorum had been increased to a schism-proof nine people, that the GM's role was strengthened, and that the conflict-of-interest statement would be reworded. A lawyer urged cutting that statement entirely for now, but the proposer refused.
How would tie votes be avoided, someone asked. The proposer said that only an odd number of voters would be permitted in committee meetings. If necessary, one committee member would be excluded by drawing straws. If later committee members arrived, straws would be passed down to later even-numbered arrivals. Abstentions would be forbidden if they affected a vote's outcome.
After the audience adjusted to this weirdness, a lawyer member asked how continuity would be kept between meetings if different members could form quorums without having been at previous meetings. The proposer replied that minutes of previous meetings would be read at later meetings. But later meetings usually begin by approving old minutes, replied the member, and thus people from the previous meeting should be present, right?
"O-kay," the proposer said. She asked a committee candidate to do more rewording. But board member Electromagnetic Israel thundered, "Enough what-ifs! There's never been an example, in our 26 years, of people taking advantage of their committee positions! Let's trust, and move forward on this. Nobody's going to screw me, period. Let's set up this thing and move on to the next agenda item."
But the chair said we couldn't vote on this if the conflict-of-interest section was going to be rewritten. So the proposer offered a simple, one-sentence substitution that everyone liked. Almost everyone. "What if they work with someone" with a conflict of interest, asked a member still probing for complicity. "We don't even have snacks at these meetings," grumbled a renovation committee candidate.
An audience member, silent till now, came forward and demanded in a thick Brooklyn accent to know why the lawyers present weren't willing to better finesse this proposal. "Why dontcha save us some legal fees?" She wore a skintight business suit with hot shoes. I was waiting for her to crack some gum. Sure, the Renovation Committee proposer herself wore a catsuit, with a sheer panel, but she was evoking Uma Thurman in The Avengers, not Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny. Our own Marisa Tomei received deafening silence from the audience, and later silently fled before the vote took place.
"Call the question!" screamed an audience member. The chair, relieved by the suggestion to end discussion, said "We're gonna vote." He and his cochair counted the overwhelming number of hands. "C'mon, Doyle, raise your hand!" chivvied a Renovation Committee candidate, pleading with board president and defrocked Project Development Team member Doyle Warren. The chair and cochair conferred. "People, you have yourself a committee," announced the chair, again giving no numbers. There was great applause.
The third proposal was to create a committee to study coop governance, propose a new system, and have it voted on by the whole coop. GMs tend to support the status quo, and this one was little different. The first speaker urged the proposer to bring a more developed plan to the next GM. Board member Electromagnetic Israel suggested that he come back two meetings later so more people could learn about it in the coop newspaper.
A couple of other questioners wanted to simplify the process, one asking why the proposer wanted to bother publishing a governance report in the newspaper, or bother submitting the referendum question's text to the GM for approval. The proposer said that the newspaper was the best way to spread information. As for the change-resistant, coordinator-dominated GM approving a governance-changing referendum, "we have a system in place, till the GM is reformed out of existence" (there were snickers) "or not . . . whether we like it or not."
We were running late. "As the chair," said the chair, "I'm gonna make a chair decision on this." Since the proposal's oral presentation had differed from the written one on the agenda, he said, the proposer should return to a future GM with something more developed. "And that's my decision." The audience was surprised by the simple diktat. The proposer walked off silently and sadly. "I like this," someone said. Some people whispered about whether the chair had that power. Overhearing the discord, the chair announced that his decision was not subject to a vote unless it was appealed. "Then I appeal," grumbled Electromagnetic Israel. A coordinator countered that the proposer had accepted the judgment, making more debate moot.
"Let's have the board meeting," announced the chair. Holtz rose, read a chunk of bylaws, and at president Doyle Warren's request led two separate votes to confirm or cancel the GM decisions. The five board members present voted 5-0 to approve the workslot-credit proposal, but only 4-0 to approve the formation of the Building Next Door's Project Management Team. Warren abstained.
The closing criticism/self-criticism began with hearty applause for the chair. One member reiterated the lawyer's soliloquy comment that lawyers should not be condemned as "legalistic" or "paranoid." We need their expertise too, she said. A coordinator said that the soliloquizer had called things "legalistic" herself, surely not intending it as an insult. "We have to be allowed to disagree with the lawyers in the room," he added. "There are so many of them."
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