TALES FROM THE COOP Now at foody.org/coop.html
SMARMY TIES McCARTHY
A new chair, leading the General Meeting for the first time, first grappled with a controversy gripping the meetings for years: shut off the meeting-room air conditioning so we could hear ourselves speak, or leave it on, leaving us cool but deaf.
He decided that we should sweat, and proved to be a firm yet fair moderator throughout the evening. He announced a new rule forbidding discussion of a motion before it is formally on the floor, which sometimes lead to long debates followed by no time to revise or vote on the motion itself. The ruling was surprising, and a couple of members asked whether the membership would be allowed to vote on it. No, said the chair: since the chair committee wrote the rules in the first place, it could change them.
Coordinator Mike Eakin, as hoarse as Tom Waits, said that the gross margin -- the total income from sales, excluding costs -- was great but that expenses were up, in part because of the monthly maintenance contract for the checkout scanners, despite their never having worked since their purchase in December 1998.
Reelecting, reelecting, and booting the coop officers was the main agenda item, since the previous month's Annual Meeting hadn't had time for that.
The only candidate for secretary was incumbent Riana McLoughlin, a masochist for being willing to compose GM minutes for yet another year. This night she was absent. "All of us who've been to the GMs know what a spectacular job she's done with the minutes," praised Eric Schneider, the coop president. Hinting at earlier arguments over the 1999 introduction of minutes, which the coordinators had opposed, he stressed that the minutes had been accurate and objective.
The incumbent treasurer, bookkeeping coordinator Tricia Leath, was also absent. Her opponent, member Glenn Moller, said he had nominated himself because members deserved a choice besides a coop employee with a potential conflict of interest. Yet Moller now said that after talking with Leath and members about her duties and performance, he felt she was doing a good job, so he withdrew. The first applause of the evening greeted his gracious decision. The voting overwhelmingly reelected both Mcloughlin and Leath "with just a few no votes."
Graciousness evaporated when the vice-presidential candidates began. Melinda Antirevolutionary Marx, the incumbent and the coordinators' favorite, criticized both her opponent, Kathy Bauer, and board member Doyle Warren for voting as board members against the GM, and said she herself would "maintain consistency in the progress of our coop." This was a valid complaint, since the coop has a tradition of its board of directors existing only for legality's sake to rubber-stamp GM decisions. But since GMs themselves often rubber-stamp the coop staff's wishes, thanks to staff involvement and member apathy, some members now view the board as more of a potential Supreme Court than as an Electoral College.
VP candidate Kathy Bauer defended her recent board-member vote against the loan terms for the Building Next Door (BND) by saying that the GM had been rushed into voting on a process that had begun in October 1997. She admitted that she was interested in coop governance reform. She quoted Marx saying that meeting minutes were a threat to governance, criticized Marx for abstaining from minutes approval, and praised Schneider for his role in the 1997 Special Meeting in which members overturned a rebel board veto against exploring the BND purchase. She also praised coop cochair Carl Arnold for his success in democratizing Annual Meeting proxy voting (a change that only increased votes for the coordinators' board candidates, but hey, better luck next year).
Fractiousness increased during the audience questions. Marx, when asked how she'd "reduce the level of incentive and animosity that pervades the GM," started by sweetly calling herself "the honest human being that I am, and cooperative." But then she began ranting about board members Schneider and Warren. "I'm answering your question!" she said when her questioner began laughing. To Baeur, another member said that board members should vote with the GM no matter what; why would you take power into your own hands? "I believe you do what you think is right; I don't believe you do evil things . . . [but] better to change the governance process than cast a veto," the member said. Baeur replied that rubber-stamping had been ineffective, and that a larger board might be able to resolve problems better.
Cochair Arnold agreed that it was better for directors to change governance than to vote against the GM, and he complained bitterly about the complex BND budget plan having been rushed for GM approval, saying that in retrospect, he would have liked to have thrown out the proposal. He asked Marx what her vote had been then. She said that she'd voted nay as a member during the GM, but had still approved the GM vote of yea.
Former rebel board member Paul Schneider asked Marx and Bauer whether they'd try to work to "rationalize" the coop election process, noting that proxies had decided the Annual Meeting board election before the meeting vote even had taken place. Marx didn't like his fuzzy term "rationalize," and evasively said that she was "with the membership, however we want to grow." Bauer agreed that the election "could have been done in a saner way."
The GM voted to dethrone Marx, casting 21 yea and 25 nay votes for her, and 28 yea and 16 nay votes for Bauer.
Competition for the president's post was not much tamer, and it had a surprise ending. Smarmy Schneider asked to be reelected, citing several noble deeds including his leadership in organizing the 1997 Special Meeting.
Paul Bermanzohn, his opponent, said that coop tradition had dictated that the board rubber-stamp the GM's decisions, but that recent consensus had supported board oversight. He jokingly described the coop president's post as having little power, "a figurehead leader of a legal fiction," and said that as a veteran of school class presidencies, he was very highly qualified to hold the same rank here. He said that he respected Schneider but that the latter "takes the process too seriously sometimes." A member annoyed by Bermanzohn's jokiness complained that when you're talking about a multimillion-dollar business, you can't be lighthearted about it. The candidate, now more solemn, said he was making light of himself, not the coop. Still, he added, "I'm a psychiatrist. Some of the things that take place in the coop are in my domain."
Bermanzohn also proposed leading the coop in a campaign against genetically manipulated foods, a campaign that he said would increase unity among coop members and attract new ones via good publicity. Bermanzohn is brighter than most of the anti-science panickers on the coop's Environmental Committee, but his and their activism against GM foods still feeds a growing anti-biotech red-scare mood among current members. Bermanzohn didn't describe himself as a new Joe McCarthy, of course; instead he said that one-issue solidarity would make the coop "more the kind of family that we'd all like to become."
Marx and fellow board member Electromagnetic Israel reminded Schneider that they too had helped organize the corrective Special Meeting. Israel especially complained that Schneider was hogging the credit. Schneider replied that he'd been saying "we" (not according to my notes), but that he had had a leading role.
Marx asked Schneider whether he thought the board should be expanded, and whether the board should impose its will on the GM. Schneider said that most boards of directors were larger that that of the coop, "balancing out the tyranny of the minority," as in the case of the rebel-board vote that had had to be overruled by the members' Special Meeting. Schneider said he was "saddened" by Marx's claim that expanding the boards would be oppressive. He said that he felt the board should defer to the membership, and that he had, as a board member, voted to approve GM decisions with which he'd disapproved.
Member Erach Screwvala quoted coordinator Linda Wheeler's past elitist comment that "one way to disempower people is to ask them to decide things about which they cannot quickly make a decision." Screwvala added that when the GM had approved the BND loan terms, that meant 100 attendees had spoken for 7,000 members in authorizing around $2 million in new debt. "Do you agree with Linda's statement, how do we fix it, and who speaks for those who vote no and raise serious questions?" Screwvala asked, saying that only Bauer and Warren had done so then.
This gave Schneider the chance to complain that the BND Renovation Committee had, despite his begging for two months, delayed generating projected-budget figures until the day of the General Meeting that would vote on those loan terms. He said he had reviewed the figures during his day job, and had voted yea as a director not out of personal confidence, but out of duty to the membership.
Coop members can cast yea or nay votes for its candidates; anyone with more nay than yea votes loses. But in results that a cochair called "unprecedented," Schneider and Bermanzohn each got 28 yeas and 18 nays. The abstainers ruled the day: had any one of the three blank ballots been filled in, it could have turned the tide.
No one knew what to do, but there was no apparent tension. The chair suggested that the past president continue till a new election next month. Former rebel director Paul Sheridan facetiously suggested a "co-presidency." After much discussion, we decided that an August meeting would have an unrepresentatively tiny turnout, and that no one wanted to meet in August anyway, though of course that should be the Agenda Committee's decision, so we voted 30-8 with 5 abstentions to vote again for president in September.
As we had waited for the presidential vote count, Electromagnetic Israel began his agenda item, a proposal to create a committee to explore a tax-exempt Park Slope Food Coop foundation that could offer grants or loans to do nice things. But no volunteer effort survives without someone to spearhead it. Despite having waited seven months for his proposal to appear on the GM agenda, Israel admitted to being neither knowledgeable about, nor interested in, working to create a foundation. No one else wanted to approve something so tentative, so several people asked him to return with a more developed plan. Only one member present wanted to be on the committee. Even Israel didn't sound like he wanted to serve. The only member with any passion about this was cranky Grandpa, who shouted, "It's ridiculous and unfair to come to the coop and say this is a great idea, figure it out for me!"
Once Israel grumpily agreed to play a role in his own proposal, we voted 35-1 with 3 abstentions (Grandpa voted nay) to approve the foundation committee.
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