TALES FROM THE COOP

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THE MOUSEKETEERS CAN'T HEAR YOU

As the last General Meeting ended, coop board member Electromagnetic Israel had ranted "This is illegal!" about minutes approval. In the new GM's prefatory Open Forum, he sounded calmer, saying that he "will not participate with that part of the board vote that has to do with agenda minutes" because he felt it violated the coop's tradition of the board not voting separately from the GM. He said that he'd submitted an agenda proposal to address this. Melinda Marx, the other board member who won't vote on minutes -- a position less interesting for its claimed respect for legalism than for its support of coordinator power to interpret meeting proceedings -- said she looked forward to Israel's proposal.

Coordinator Mike Eakin said in his financial report that the gross margin "isn't real good" because of continual shrinkage (mostly theft), but that this month's statement was "the best so far this year. The situation keeps improving." Sales are up thanks to hungrier members, and more of them.

Coop secretary Riana McLoughlin said that the minutes for the last meeting had been distributed at the coop for a week. Member Wirehead added that they were also available on his Web site, parkslopefoodcoop.org. (The official coop Web site is foodcoop.com). Speaking as a committee, Wirehead said that he'd decided to remove his site's coordinator and board-director pages. (Most wouldn't have participated anyway.) A coordinator challenged Wirehead's right to speak as a committee since his was a volunteer effort that had been suggested, but not approved, by the GM. An Agenda Committee member agreed, and suggested that he submit a proposal for formal GM approval. Wirehead agreed to submit one in "a couple of months."

The Personnel Committee said that it was searching for a new general (top managerial) coordinator. When asked how the GM fit into management hiring, the committee representative fumbled her answer out of ignorance, sounding evasive. Coordinator Linda Wheeler stepped in to say that it was the GM that decided how many staff positions there should be and whether the final candidate would be hired. The Personnel Committee's role is to recommend applicants to the coordinators, who in turn recommend their choices back to the Personnel Committee.

This, and debate over coordinator overwork and whether the Personnel Committee could handle grievances between coordinators, took an insane amount of time. Board president Eric Schneider repeatedly asked whether job-seekers' details be told to the membership. "Candidates might have other jobs and might not want it announced in a newsletter going to five thousand people," said Eakin.

"Much ado about nothing," mumbled someone near me. The chair closed discussion and introduced the first agenda item, the election of members to three open slots on the Agenda Committee. The Agenda Committee traffics and refines proposals for the General Meeting. It has already successfully wiped out a backlog of pending proposals.

The original candidates were Melinda Marx and two members already on the committee. In addition, a babbling, hand-wringing audience member, seeming much like a frantic mouse, nominated herself. She directed her rambling statement everywhere except the microphone. No one understood her. When the votes were tallied at the end of the GM, the first three candidates had been overwhelmingly elected, and Frantic Mouse had lost 13-26. She didn't speak again till the closing criticism/self-criticism period, when instead of discussing how the meeting went, she nattered about how the coop's computers and modernity meant a loss of community. When the chair repeatedly tried to get her to wrap up, she began shrieking nonstop that she was being "dominated by a few people," and she fled the meeting shouting that she'd never come to another one.

But Frantic Mouse's Scanners moment came at the end of the meeting, after the Renovation Committee's big presentation. Darlene and Cheryl, two members of the committee -- a Mouseketeer-like group that had dumped an avalanche of Building Next Door news at an earlier General Meeting -- now presented a rough "paint by the numbers without the paint" sketch and a thorough explanation of what the BND's guts would look like. Plans will be finalized in November, the first cost estimate done by early December, and construction may begin March 1.

Mostly Darlene spoke, with Cheryl perched behind her on the stage. Darlene, pointing to a blowup of the sketch, guided us through the future food coop. The front of the new building hosts a broad new entrance atrium. The atrium lacks the space-wasting, coordinator-opposed skylight that was in the earliest plans. Entry workers watch turnstiles and a pass gate, and have a view of an elevator to the second floor. A curved wall breaks the right-angle monotony that follows, and separates the checkout/exit area while showing a view of it (unless you're little). Past the turnstiles will be a "lobby" or "commons" with shopping-cart storage and bulletin boards with coop news and member postings.

"I like being able to tell you what I like because there are 15 members of the committee and we all want something different," Darlene said, continuing the presentation. There will be new bathrooms. New aisles will be wide. There will be lots more shelving space. Produce shelving is doubled, and there's 8 feet more shelving for meat substitutes. (Meat itself gets only 12 inches more shelving.) Shoppers can move up or down aisles, instead of being expected to follow the current (largely ignored) system of arrows painted on the floor. A freight elevator in the front will ease receiving from trucks, and a tiny freight elevator in the rear will ease restocking from the basement.

Currently, two shopping aisles feed two waiting lines (one regular, one express) leading into six checkout stations with large counters and narrow 22-inch lanes. In the future Building Next Door, three or four aisles will feed 10 checkouts, all with smaller counters but with wider 4-foot lanes and no need for double right-angle turns. Then come three cashier stations. Then the exit worker confirms that people aren't carrying more groceries than they paid for, and shoppers can leave.

(Since the General Meeting, a Renovation Committee article in the Linewaiter's Gazette offers additional details: no, feng shui is not a design option; yes, drinking fountains will be filtered; no, there will be no bidet; no, there will be no extra kosher features to keep food from unholy contamination.)

Many members cooperatively praised the Renovation Committee and the overall plan. But they all also fretted about the exit area. After all the boasts of shopping space with wide aisles and more natural traffic flow, the checkout area had the appeal of constipation after a rich meal. Some said that the checkout stations were bunched up, with little space for bagging and boxing large loads. That "may be a potential problem," admitted prime-mover coordinator Joe Holtz.

A member said that there didn't seem to be a clear, nonconfrontational way of getting from the shopping-aisle waiting line to some checkouts. Renovation Committee Mouseketeer Tommy, in the audience, said that express shoppers would walk through the regular checkout lines to get to the express checkouts, with the express maybe limited to baskets. (But some express shoppers, such as the elderly or those weakened by a vegetarian diet, do use carts.) "It looks kind of all jammed in," complained another member.

"A lot of this is very idiosyncratic stuff that no outside contractor can help us with," said Darlene. "We're going to have to, as a coop, work this out. . . . We have a new store and we have to evolve new practices" for the new space, she added later. An audience member replied, "It sounds as though you're saying it'll all work out. Our feedback needs to be incorporated into the new design; we shouldn't have to fit into the new design." "I see all the old problems," said another member. Darlene and Cheryl answered that checkout capacity would be doubled, that the plan already devoted half the new building to exit space, and that the wall between the old and new buildings limits design options.

A member said that the line for the cashiers' counter could run into the checkout counter. Another member said that the waiting lines could extend back into the shopping aisle, and he suggested eliminating shelving along one of the aisles to make room for queued shoppers. "We need to keep in mind that we're a grocery store," replied Darlene, by now looking strained. "Not to disparage you at all, but we just can't go lopping off product." The exit area has been exhaustively considered, she added.

Members who worried that there were too many checkout counters and too much receiving area for accepting deliveries were told by a coordinator that the staff had actually wanted more; this plan was a compromise. Lockers that had once been planned for the shopping floor will now be on the second floor because of lack of room. "I see these looks of concern, but you put one thing in and it changes the flow of the whole thing . . . it's like dominoes. Lockers were sacrificed," said Darlene.

Reacting to the dissatisfaction, Darlene did say "This hasnít been 100 percent resolved. Details are still being worked on." But her more earnest reply was "We spent a lot of time on [the plans]. We laid it out on the floor of the new building, walked through it with the staff. . . . This wasn't something we sketched out in our living room."

After the chair ended discussion, a member asked when the next chance would be to offer feedback. "We could be here all night if necessary!" he threatened.

"This process has to go forward," said Darlene. "We can't go on in General Meetings. The GMs are only once a month. We welcome discussion, but we're going forward with the plan. With all due respect, we are not redesigning this plan."

The criticism/self-criticism wrap-up continued challenging the Renovation Committee. "I do get the feeling that the committee is closed, locked into" existing plans, complained an audience member. The publication of the plans in the Linewaiter's Gazette, followed by this General Meeting to discuss them, had created the expectation of more flexibility, said another. "Now you want feedback you won't implement," bitched a third.

To all of this Greek-democracy activism, Darlene had an impassioned reply. "There are 15 people on the committee, and this [plan] doesn't reflect any of their ideas! It's not that what you say isn't going to be considered, but we can't redesign! That's not realistic! This could go on forever! We didn't come here to ask you to design it. That's what you asked us to do. Is it a perfect plan? No. But the committee felt it was the best plan" considering the space limitations.

To which Cheryl added, "We've had one meeting a week forever, and we've had one non-Renovation Committee member attend -- [Eric] Schneider, at 6:30 in the morning. I appreciate that what's been presented looks like a fait accompli. But no one showed."

The next General Meeting will devotes most of its time to a discussion of the exit area.

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jkarpf@echonyc.com