TALES FROM THE COOP foody.org/coop.html
MINUTE BY MINUTE
For the first time in months, the financial report (offered by ur-coordinator Joe Holtz) expressed no joy in member loans for the Building Next Door. Holtz said we should press for more loans. Another coordinator said that the latest delay in installing bar-code scanners (once scheduled for five months ago!) was the software's limit of eight transactions between the checkout counter and the cashier. The developers had promised a buffer of 200 transactions, but the coop is the first client busy enough to try above eight. The developers are developing a bug fix.
She also urged everyone to have their new photo IDs taken. The audience worried about data privacy. One member said he'd leave the coop if the member database wasn't encrypted. The coordinator didn't know if there was encryption. She did say that some people, especially women, were concerned about their image appearing on the entrance-desk computer. She said everyone is asked when their photo is taken whether they want it suppressed there. (I was not asked on my first office visit, whose photographer botched the job, or on my second visit, whose photographer argued that members should be happy to have their photos displayed.)
The first agenda topic was an innocent little procedural proposal to add minutes-taking to the General Meetings. Except nothing at the coop is innocent or little except the supposedly murdered free-range chickens on the poultry shelves.
"In the real world outside the coop, minutes are considered the norm," said proposer and coop president Eric Schneider. He said that we're obliged by law to have minutes, and that members have a right to them. He said that minutes varied in depth, with government's being most brief, and that minutes for not-for-profit firms should be more descriptive. He distributed an example written by coop secretary Riana McLoughlin, who would also prepare future ones. "I hope that minutes will reduce acrimony at these meetings" and be used "to settle disputes," he said.
Ha! Just discussing whether to have minutes turned this meeting from cooperation into carnage, with arguments over board versus GM power, member versus coordinator control, and cybergeek versus Luddite enfranchisement.
How would the board of directors approve past minutes? Some audience members said that monthly minutes approval could take forever. A coordinator said that the GM would be even more confusing to newbies if the board met before the GM (to vote on GM minutes) as well as after it (to vote on GM decisions). Should only previously present board members vote? If someone objected to the minutes' contents, would there then be discussion? To the last point, Schneider said that minutes would not editorialize, and that there should be no "long, protracted" discussion of them.
Many members didn't want the board to review minutes at all. Minutes would be a record of the GM, so why shouldn't the GM approve them, "to keep the populist energy" going and to check the power of the board? It took a member who was no fan of the board of directors to remind the room that the GM has no legal power. She said that only the board, which meets to confirm (a nearly inevitable rubber stamp) or reject (rarely and explosively, as when her own partner, a former board member, had helped veto the building-next-door purchase) GM decisions could "reasonably approve or disapprove" the minutes.
The coordinators didn't want minutes. The staff maintains its governing power, aside from commercial success and the natural change-is-bad conservatism of members, by attending the GMs, which are so unattended they hardly need to pack them. The only GM records are the chair committee's "decision book" of past resolutions, unintelligible tapes that a coordinator said are never requested for review, and Linewaiter's Gazette articles subject to ham-fisted coordinator fact-checking and a nearly religious idea of cooperativism, in which writing is rosy and positive not because events are cooperative, but because events occur within a cooperative. Detailed and independently written minutes leave little leeway for staff interpretation, and neatly plug a hole in the coop's institutional memory.
So it was Joe Holtz, after gushing thanks to Schneider for figuring out something he said the coop must had been doing wrong for 26 years, who said that the coop bylaws allow record-keeping "as otherwise provided," so we could do "whatever we want." He helpfully suggested the status quo, or approval of Gazette reports as minutes, Schneider's proposal of secretary-maintained minutes, or third-party recording. "What's advisable?" he asked. "What's best?"
Schneider thanked Holtz for his "effusive praise," but said that not-for-profit law favored traditional minutes such as the example he'd distributed, so let's adopt them.
Other speakers followed, but none followed Holtz's lead. So Holtz then suggested that the board approve Gazette reporting as minutes. "We have a system, it's just not written down," he wheedled.
Regular GM attendee Andy Kaufman, at first unable to collect his thoughts despite previously complaining about the chair stopping his earlier rambling, spoke against formalizing Gazette reportage. He said that a GM record-keeper should be selected by the GM, and that the "unpleasant assignment" of reporting the GM could mean a high turnover of inexperienced writers "obscuring" the meetings. (The Gazette reporter did seem to find this meeting as pleasant as food poisoning, but she had been covering them since 1990.)
"This is a change in governance. I'm in favor of it, for reasons I don't have time to explain adequately," said Andy Kaufman, then adding something nebulous about historic disempowering of the board probably being illegal.
Coop member Wirehead, whose governance Web site proposal had failed at a previous GM, urged online distribution of minutes. The coop's official Web site is barely navigable, is stagnant with old pages, has a closed discussion forum, and accepts no e-mail, although any pesky member can still call the coordinators during office hours. Schneider happily amended the proposal to include online posting of minutes, and asked how much labor it would take. Wirehead said one workslot, including time to manage the discussion group. "Where the hell did a discussion group come from?" muttered some in the audience.
A coordinator spoke strongly against adding GM minutes to the coop Web site, saying that the site was a marketing tool that should stick to content that makes the coop look attractive. Since most coopers aren't online, added a member, online forums are useless as functional tools.
This night's GM was not attractive to potential or existing members. Discussion was punctuated by rambling speakers, audience chatter, Andy Kaufman's random objections, and member frustration with the GM itself. "People argue for sport here, are mean for sport here," someone complained. The chair, leading her first meeting while being flanked by two weary veteran cochairs, successfully stopping much babbling. But her pleas for quiet and order for the sake of "fairness" were often ignored. What is fairness to an audience that thinks that little is fair?
Later, when her weak command presence was compounded by arbitrary decisions to ignore a couple of motions, all hell broke loose. A member said the proposal seemed dictatorial, weakening the GM. "I don't want to respond to the nasty stuff" in that statement, said Schneider. In which case he should have shut up about it, because he just sparked audience catcalls of "What did you say, Eric?" "'Nasty stuff'?" "''Nasty stuff'?" Board member and coordinators' flunky Electromagnetic Israel asked if any of the venerable staff members remembered problems in interpreting past GMs. One member, looking around her in bewilderment as though she were the only non-pod person left, said she couldn't believe that this "matter of record" could be such an issue, and that thanks to hidden agendas, "there's no logical thought going on here!"
The chair urged Schneider to read the proposal. He summarized it, then began rattling off amendments. The audience shouted him down, ordering him to read it in full. He did, patronizingly stiffly. A member moved to table the motion till next month. This forced a chair committee huddle, resulting in the chair rejecting the tabling motion by declaring permissible only one motion at a time. Israel demanded to know if the board would "receive the advice of the membership" in reviewing minutes. A coordinator yelled that you can't ignore a motion to table, and that such a motion is only relevant when there's a motion on the floor.
So the chair committee huddled again. The chair emerged to say that since neither motion had been seconded, now was the time to do so. Someone seconded Schneider's. Then someone seconded tabling. "I'll accept the first motion," said the chair. Pandemonium followed, so she backed down and finally allowed a tabling vote. It lost 7-23, with 3 abstentions.
"Let's have discussion," cried Israel, "I'm still confused on what we're voting for!" The chair asked Schneider to reread his proposal. The audience screamed no! "This is like a Fellini film!" said someone. A member proposed an amendment stressing the advisory capacity of the GM. "But we're done," gasped someone behind me.
Ignoring the amendment, the chair ruled that we would vote, and that we didn't have to vote for the proposal if we didn't like it. Hands began to rise. "But the amendment is in order! You can't ignore it!" said a coordinator. Hands wobbled downward. The chair said amendments rejected as unfriendly would not stand (contrary to the past GM practice of a forced floor vote on unfriendly amendments). The chair asked Schneider if he accepted the amendment; Schneider said no.
The member proposing the amendment said we needed an unbiased minutes-taker "in the advisory capacity of the GM," and he complained that the minutes-taker was not specified in the sample handout. "The secretary takes the minutes!" said Schneider. "Then there's no problem," said the member, who then said that in the advisory capacity of the GM, the minutes should include "our opinions, our grievances, our feelings." Secretary McLoughlin, silent till then, finally spoke, incredulously asked the amending member "how are we going to accept my characterization of opinions as unbiased?! Forget it!"
Finally, the chair permitted the vote on the unfriendly amendment. It failed 6-19, with 4 abstentions. "It does not fly," said the chair. "I have another amendment!" yelled Israel. Luckily, someone called the question -- a motion that cannot be ignored on any grounds -- forcing a vote on the minutes proposal itself. Compared to the cacophony of debate surrounding these votes, the silence as we raised our hands during the actual voting was nothing short of eerie. We voted 24-15, with 1 abstention.
"Thank God," a few groaned. Holtz volunteered to withdraw the second topic, the coordinators', since there were only ten minutes left in the meeting. No more agenda. "We're ten minutes early," said the chair in amazement. Holtz led the board of directors meeting, which voted 5-0 to accept the GM's decision.
In the post-meeting evaluation, everyone agreed that this GM had been "psycho." "You're still in shock," a coordinator told the chair. A cochair said blood ran hot in the summer, and that having our chairs in rows meant that we couldn't see each other. "Don't tell people in the coop about this as a representative meeting," the coordinator begged the audience. "I don't believe you," replied one newbie who'd been bribed with workslot credit into attending, and said she wouldn't return. She urged improved use of online forums. "If member feedback is what you want, this meeting isn't it. I'll tell people not to come." A member said that the challenges of surviving GMs should not be cause for quitting. "You have a vote!" he thundered. "Use it!"
As for secretary McLoughlin, I can't imagine why she'd want to finish her term. Minutes will continue to be an issue, even if they need not include "our opinions, our grievances, our feelings." Too many psychos will seize this monthly bone of contention, fail to find their own little toothmarks, and bark. The easiest officer position in any organization is usually secretary, the coop post previously held by Schneider. Now that McLoughlin has it, minute by minute, it may be the hardest one.
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