TALES FROM THE COOP foody.org/coop.html
DISEMPOWERMENT IS EMPOWERMENT
A cochair began the General Meeting by announcing that he and another cochair were quitting, he because of school and she because of fleeing to New Hampshire. This reduces the Chair Committee to one weary veteran and one still-fresh rookie.
In the anything-goes Open Forum, a member who had seen a recent 20/20 exposé asked whether organic produce, lacking pesticides, included more animal crud. Several members and coordinators eagerly said that organic is no dirtier than nonorganic, that a normal immune system could handle it, that organic farms' use of manure is well regulated, and that organic soil is more nutritious.
Coordinator Mike Eakin reported the usual high sales, low expenses, and theft-weakened gross margin. I asked whether we could get a tax break on the checkout scanners, which should have been running over a year before, but were never usable, thanks to bugs in its Trimax software. Another member asked whether we could depreciate expenses of the yet-to-be-renovated Building Next Door. In both cases, Eakin said, depreciation could not start till actual use.
Coordinator Linda Wheeler reported on the recent coop burglary, in which thieves broke through a barred skylight and dropped into the office containing the coop's electronics. The coop doesn't store cash, so the only loss was three walkie-talkies. But the thieves ripped out phone and network cables, and stole the surveillance camera tapes, so damage was high and evidence scanty. Wheeler described coordinators repairing wiring and using cell phones to place orders. Insurance will cover everything, less a thousand-dollar deductible. The coordinators have "reevaluated" second-floor security, and have added motion sensors.
Board member Doyle Warren reminded Wheeler that the Building Next Door's former construction manager (hired by the Project Development Team, of which Warren was a member till top coordinator Joe Holtz axed it) had suggested securing electronics against criminal damage; for example, locking down equipment and running cabling through steel sleeves. Are we finally going to do that? he asked. Wheeler first avoided the question by boasting of quick implementation of motion detectors. When Warren pressed the issue, she said that such detectors would sound the alarm before the gear could be damaged. A cochair asked what else could be done. (Maybe a guard dog starved for flesh, fed only the coop's brown-rice dog food?) Eakin noted that the alarm system was actually more expensive than anything we were trying to protect.
Another member asked for assurances that computer records were backed up. But when Wheeler said that she even informally brought backup copies home for safekeeping, he complained that she risked the privacy of the coop's data. "I can't read it," said Wheeler. "I can," said the member.
Wheeler then said that though the coop preferred contractors who are coop members, and did not routinely bother disclosing such use, she had been convinced by board member/president/pest Eric Schneider to disclose the coop's hiring of board member Electromagnetic Israel for printing jobs, including that of thousands of wasabi-colored promotional cards. Two people asked what the job costs had been, but Wheeler didn't know. "Maybe Israel knows!" trumpeted Warren, but Israel stayed silent.
Wheeler also announced that the coop had successfully prevented the state from taxing the coop's membership fee. Schneider got up to say he'd started a suit to lower coop's property taxes. The competitively priced outside lawyers would lower the assessment, he assured us. He said that after the General Meeting, he would ask the board of directors to affirm his decision, a request that would later spark the only violence of the evening.
Electing a member to the Agenda Committee was the first agenda item. Since he was unopposed and qualified, though boring, some people begged the cochairs to allow a vote by acclamation. But the cochairs, guided by Wheeler, insisted on a secret ballot, since acclamation can discourage opposition. So on our ballots we all checked "Yes" next to his lone name, and he was elected.
The next agenda item was brought by the general coordinators (the salaried, upper tier of staff), who wanted the General Meeting to cede to them the right to change employment policy for the lower tier of hourly paid coordinators. The coordinators have always come to the GM for permission to modify that policy. But Wheeler said that as the staff had grown, that step had become "unwieldy," especially when it came to hiring new people and rewarding employee longevity (some have been around as long as a decade).
Wheeler said that letting the coordinators control the hourly employment policy would help resolve the "not terribly rational" separation of powers between the GM and the staff.
Some discussion focused on specific employment policy changes. The general coordinators said they would make changes to sick days, choice of holidays (only four per year!), and vacations, with all such benefits remaining puny. They'd also make changes to the health plan, which "gets worse every year." They would quickly negotiate non-wage benefits, like days off, with prospective or about-to-quit employees.
Others talked about governance. When asked why the coordinators didn't want to continue bringing changes to the GM, Wheeler began with the astoundingly Orwellian assurance that by giving up power, the GM would gain power. She said that when the coordinators ask the GM to change "tremendously complex" minutia, that "disempowers" GM voters who don't have the background to make such a sudden, ignorant decision. To prove the point, she asked how many had read the recent Linewaiter's Gazette article on the employment policy. Out of 50 people, I saw one hand raised.
"People aren't exactly beating down our door to work at the coop; it's a hard job," said general coordinator Janet Schumaker (also the spouse of Eakin). "All the coordinators can do now is say they'll take it to the GM. In order to retain valuable employees, we need flexibility." Wheeler reiterated that this separation of powers can be "irrational," and said the "cumbersome" GM process works but is slow.
Joe Holtz pleaded for the GM to grant the coordinators the flexibility to offer improved employment plans. Then he cheerfully threatened to "steer S curves" around the GM by offering increased salaries or unpaid leave if the coordinators' proposal failed. Jerry Whiner, a regular attendee, complained that this debate "was one of the classic, tedious, meaningless discussions" about people qualified to run the coop. "This is idiotic. It's pretty obvious stuff; let's move on and vote."
The coordinators agreed to report policy changes to the GM, saying that they'd do that anyway. After the audience overwhelmingly voted to vote on the proposal itself, and then actually voted, it passed 40-5, with 5 abstentions.
The Marketing Committee then proposed an "added value" program. They said that local merchants would love to offer discounts to card-carrying coop members, and to distribute our brochure and the Linewaiter's Gazette. What would merchants want in exchange? Nothing; the consensus was that they'd welcome the extra business. Whiner said that his own business had "made thousands of dollars off of this coop," and that merchants should share their extra profits with the coop, maybe via some kickback honor system. This, and a member's proposal to require a minimum discount from stores, was rejected by the Marketing Committee as "strong-arm tactics" and "squeezing participants." When Electromagnetic Israel suggested demanding a joining fee for new merchants, the committee rep winced and said, "We're trying to create a community here."
The Marketing Committee said it would first approach businesses of coop members, such as those advertising in the Gazette. Other businesses would be approached when suggested by members. Some argued that we should not include direct competitors such as Back to the Land, and indirect ones such as Key Food and Barnes and Noble, and that inclusion implied endorsement. Others supported any partnership that increased coop visibility, and warned that judging worthiness would be an administrative headache.
Israel said that the Gazette might not "show us at our best." A cochair replied that the Gazette was already widely distributed. After voting on whether we should vote, we approved the plan 41-5, with 2 abstentions.
This main part of the GM, unusually timely and friendly, was followed by the usual bitter discord. Coop secretary Riana McLoughlin asked for factual changes in minutes, and board member Melinda Marx asked for a clarification and for the deletion of a the and a that. As Marx argued that those words introduced ambiguity, the four cochairs shook their heads in disbelief. McLoughlin stood her ground, and Marx acquiesced.
The two remaining cochairs begged anyone to join them. "Tell your friends." One insisted, "I do actually enjoy it sometimes! Really! I swear!"
The next chunk of the meeting, that of the board of directors, surely tested that pleasure. The directors approved 6-0 the revised minutes, the agenda-committee election, and the discount-card program decisions. They approved 5-0 the coordinator changeability of the hourly employment policy, with Doyle Warren abstaining.
Then came coop president Schneider asking the board to approve his hiring a law firm to reduce the coop's property tax. Joe Holtz, saying he'd helped arrange that contract, asked why Schneider was bothering the board about it, since the coop hires all kind of work without bringing it to the GM. Schneider insisted that he was "just playing it safe," and said he wanted this approved in the "most conservative" fashion. Holtz admitted that the coop's lawyer had ruled that the board could approve this so long as the membership was notified.
Of course, Schneider's calling the board vote "conservative" was disingenuous, since any action by the board without prior GM involvement is radical. It was a slap in the face to board members Israel and Marx, who repeated Holtz's question. Marx accused Schneider of "bringing it to the floor, in this public spectacle, to take credit for it." When Holtz said they should respect Israel's view, Schneider said that "according to him, we shouldn't vote on anything," leading Wheeler to shout from the sidelines, "stop the slander and innuendo," a protest she's never made when Marx calls independent board action, such as minutes approval, a conspiracy to take over the coop. The board (pressed by Warren) voted 5-1 (with Israel opposing) to vote on Schneider's proposal, which the board then passed 5-0 (Israel abstaining).
In the closing wrap-up, a couple of people complained that the board should not have acted without the "advice of the membership." An Agenda Committee member praised the added-value proposal as "one of the strongest, cleanest, most coherent proposals I have ever seen." A cochair said that the Chair or Agenda Committees would have made Schneider's proposal top priority, had Schneider asked. A new attendee said, "I almost want to suggest that the board members stay at home. I deal with enough of this at work!" Schneider urged the board to meet independently of the GM, Israel retorted that the coop should change only through the GM, and the two cochairs ended the meeting to shut them both up.
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