TALES FROM THE COOP

Now at foody.org/coop.html


TWEEDLEDUM AND TWEEDLEDEE

Two insane men ran; one won. You can stop reading; there wasn't much more to the 2002 Annual Meeting, whose election for a board-of-directors seat didn't even need to be packed by the paid staff. The rest of the night was just a parliamentary pissing match, with the rainbow range of genders eager to prove their aim. The reporter for the Linewaiter's Gazette, the coop newspaper, didn't bother showing up, and the chair committee's tape recorder broke, so this is the only record.

The accountant's annual statement, which showed the coop's increased assets, debt, and growth after the expansion to the Building Next Door, was as dry as a vegan brownie. But the audience had fun tossing around the accountant, asking about Enron -- before he'd even started -- and afterward demanding management tips "since we'd paid for that." (We had not. Accountants are not management consultants, he explained.)

After forbidding discussion, the chair led us in a vote of 71-1, with 3 abstentions, to accept the statement. But the accountant's lateness -- the Annual Meeting was the first time anyone had seen the statement -- sparked argument about whether to keep the accountant, who admitted he had taken a loss on the job because of the delay. Joe Holtz, the top coordinator (a coordinator is a paid staff member), said that though the accountant was conscientious and inexpensive, his office had been inaccessible thanks to the nearby World Trade Center destruction. Coop secretary Riana McLoughlin called it inappropriate for such a big business to have such late statements, and added that for years the Annual Meeting had been held a month late so the statement could be finished, and that World Trade or no World Trade, it hadn't happened yet. Holtz disagreed, now blaming this year's lateness on the coordinators instead of on the accountant. The vote to keep the accountant was 42-5, with 8 abstentions.

Next came the board-of-directors election. The six-seat board has five electable members, plus Holtz as the perpetual sixth. Coordinator shill Electromagnetic Israel, whose three-year term had just expired, was running again. Israel said that he respected the "strong governmental system that has been an important part of our coop's success," that board candidates should want to retain the current system, and that "those of us who don't go to church or a synagogue come to the coop." When a member asked how he would have voted if the General Meeting had voted no on enforcing prices on labels (item pricing), Israel was evasive, saying that the "coop has made decisions ranging from good to excellent," that he had much respect for the membership, and that it was "not only hypothetical, but a nonexistent question."

That "strong governmental system" is a direct democracy in which any coop members can propose, vote for, or vote against policies at the monthly General Meetings -- meetings which, thanks to inconvenience and apolitical apathy, are attended by less than 1 percent of the membership. This makes it easy for the coordinators to pack those meetings with themselves and their member allies. After anti-coordinator, pro-democracy advocates won elections to the board of directors, they briefly derailed the Building Next Door expansion, claiming to speak for a silent majority of members who favored greater oversight of the coordinators and less commercialism. After that brief coup, the coordinators began packing the Annual Meeting's board elections by collecting hundreds of member proxies to support their candidates, sometimes outvoting the entire membership present at the Annual Meeting. Members can now use their proxies directly, voting for specific board candidates or issues.

The democracy advocates have withered away except for one General Meeting gadfly, Andy Kaufman on a Bad Day, who still cranks out incoherent speeches at meetings and rambling letters to the editor in the Gazette. Only Andy Kaufman chose to run against Israel for the board seat. In a previous year's election, Andy Kaufman appeared at the Annual Meeting wearing a big hand-lettered sign over his rear: VOTE BY PROXY DEFEAT THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE. This year, both candidates had settled for publishing their statements in the Gazette, where Andy Kaufman managed to misquote these dispatches despite making his living as a transcriber.

At the Annual Meeting, each candidate had one minute to speak and three minutes to answer questions. But after Israel's statement and Q and A, Andy Kaufman stayed silent. As several in the audience cried out "Why won't you speak?", he stood up, said "This is me," and sat down. Finally he said that the allotted four minutes weren't enough.

This led some in the audience -- not coop democracy advocates, but clueless newbies bribed into attending the meeting in exchange for not having to work their regular monthly shift -- to beg the chair to let Andy Kaufman say all he had to say. "We must allow him proper time! That is the real sense of democracy," frothed one member. The chair refused, citing the seven-year-old election guidelines to which both candidates had already agreed. "You don't have to change the rule! You can amend it for this time!" said the frother. She added, "If you don't, we don't have a coop!"

Faced with a motion to extend the meeting for Andy Kaufman's sake, the chair committee huddled, then emerged to refuse to suspend the election rules. A member then moved to overrule the chair. A former chair-committee member sitting in the back of the room then rescued the chair, saying that the initial motion had been invalid under the election rules anyway. "We are wasting an incredible amount of time," he complained.

Slowly, the chair committee collected ballots from the chattering audience. Israel led handily, winning the meeting vote by 36-10, with 10 abstentions. As usual, Andy Kaufman received more no votes than yes votes -- 11-33, with 10 abstentions. Once all proxies of absent members were counted, Israel won by 658-132, with 89 abstentions, and Andy Kaufman had lost by 230-427.

Those proxies also surfaced during the debate over the accountant's statement and rehiring. We wasted several minutes discussing whether proxy votes for the statement were valid when the proxy voters couldn't possibly have read the statement. Secretary McLoughlin, principled beyond self-parody, begged the chair to ignore the proxies even though they weren't even being used.

Officer elections required less squabbling. McLoughlin declined nomination, raising her arms protectively when asked if she'd run for secretary again. McLoughlin had weathered that post after past president and pest Eric Schneider had successfully campaigned to add the taking of official minutes -- a normal corporate function, but one that meant recordkeeping outside of the coordinator-dominated Gazette. Some coordinator patsies on the board of directors had opposed minutes. For a few months after the minutes' inception, one director had waged war over whether she'd officially "abstained" or had "declined to vote."

The only secretary candidate was a coordinator-nominated member who had joined many committees and written many anti-meat manifestos to the Gazette. With no intelligent questions from the audience, and no one else to vote for, she won 44-5, with 1 abstentions.

It was also easy reelecting treasurer Tricia Leath, who said that there was not only no conflict of interest, but a needed advantage, in her being both treasurer and coop bookkeeping coordinator. She was booed when she admitted that the coop banked with Citibank, but she insisted that was the membership's decision, not the treasurer's. She won 44-5, with 1 abstention, plus one write-in vote for Andy Kaufman.

Weirdly, former board member and critic-of-coordinators Kathy Bauer, who had also received 4 write-in votes for the board election, received a write-in vote of 4-8 for the treasurer's job. Doyle Warren, a former coop president turned anti-staff rebel, got one "no" write-in vote, getting some laughs in the audience from those who, like me, had wasted too many years of their lives attending General Meetings.

The presidential election was a little more competitive, pitting incumbent president John Urda against chair-committee member Ken Garson, who had run against Urda last year for the presidency. Both made conservative speeches that vested authority in the membership, and said the board was only a legal requirement.

During the question-and-answer session, one member cried "We need a Web site!" for voting, adding that he spoke for those couldn't come to the Annual Meeting. Some in the audience replied "No, we don't!" and "What's your question?" Urda said members should be present to vote; Garson praised meetings for allowing face-to-face discussion. A couple of years earlier, coop member Webhead created the site parkslopefoodcoop.org, hoping for online coop activism. But that site died, and now Webhead spams coop members about upcoming Hare Krishna events.

At the Annual Meeting, while Garson said officers exist only to fulfill a legal requirement, Urda cited a board member's responsibility to be sure the coop's decisions were themselves legal. Urda also said that that as board member, he would have voted to veto the General Meeting item-pricing decision if that meeting had opposed complying with the item-pricing label law.

Last year they had run neck to neck, but this time Urda won the presidency 27-6 to Garson's 20-15.

For vice president, Garson ran against coordinator Audrey Miller Komaroff, whom Israel nominated "for the sake of gender visibility." When asked whether she would have voted to veto the General Meeting on item pricing, Miller Komaroff dodged the question by saying the item-pricing law didn't apply to the coop. The frothing member who'd demanded extra time for Andy Kaufman said she thought that Miller Komaroff should be voted on her ability, not gender, and that there should be a fairer representation of races and ethnicities among coop officers.

Garson won the vice presidency 26-15 with 4 abstentions; Miller Komaroff lost 24-16 with 7 abstentions. But even the presidency of the coop is a cipher except in times of crisis. And despite these dispatches' dwelling on the ridiculous conflicts in coop governance, it's business as usual most of the time.

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jkarpf@echonyc.com