Photo by Steve Hart, New York Times.

At a massive Special Meeting, coop members outraged by anti-staff directors who'd vetoed a General Meeting decision to study the Building Next Door overruled that veto, four to one. The study will proceed, with minor concessions.

This Special Meeting was one historic first in response to another. The rebel directors claim that the coop's staff of "coordinators" is an oligarchy controlling the coop via the monthly General Meetings (GMs). Any member can vote at a GM, but few go. The GMs have ruled the coop forever but are, by law, only "the advice of the membership to the board of directors," so the board must confirm or veto all GM decisions. Till anti-staff candidates won elections to it, the board had happily rubber-stamped all GM votes, showing respect for GM governance. But when the October GM approved a staff plan to again study buying the Building Next Door -- a purchase that had been voted down in a close referendum in 1994 -- the rebel directors, their perpetually hidden legions unable to appear at GMs to vote nay, cast the first-ever veto of a GM decision, charging the GM with undemocratically opposing the silent-majority will of the membership. In shock, a thousand members signed petitions demanding this retaliatory Special Meeting, a meeting that the rebel directors would be powerless to veto.

The next two General Meetings also got mean. In November, the GM overwhelmingly approved selling more bulk items. The coordinators opposed this. They said we already have enough bulk, that such low-profit items take up too much space in our cramped store, and that bulk adds to wastage and to risk of injury from moving supplies (the coordinators aren't getting any younger). But members still demanded more varied bulk items -- including high-quality cat food -- even if it meant, or rather especially if it meant, fewer packaged yuppie goods like cookies and desk lamps. The motion passed 39-9, making it General Meeting law. It was law to even the rebel directors, who all approved this GM decision, this time. Ironically it was newly elected mainstream director angela [sic] who now abstained, saying she didn't have enough information to do more. Long ago, director Stewart's first single abstention had launched a furor second only to the October veto betrayal. I don't know how riley's abstention was received, but now that the opposition directors have broken the taboo, apparently now anyone can.

The December meeting was even meaner. First the coordinators re-proposed a survey that asked coopers to suggest products. The survey had been voted down by the May GM, mostly because it didn't ask what stuff people didn't want sold. The anti-staff, democracy-broadening opposition also hates surveys, wanting feedback only as part of governmental reform. But this GM approved the survey two to one, 24 to 12. Then a proposal to amend the staff pension plan -- a minor technical change -- was quickly approved 29 to 1. But the rebel directors once again butchered confirmation of GM decisions. Stewart and Paul voted against the survey, with Chandra abstaining. And then all three rebels senselessly abstained from voting on the pension-plan proposal -- an inevitable change soon to be demanded by state law, and which will even save the coop money. They probably abstained because the pension plan was broadly opposed by anti-staffers on the grounds that it should have been authorized by a referendum, not by the GM.

The coop in-house newspaper called that December GM "tense," which is like the Kremlin admitting Yeltsin enjoys a second beer. And over the next three GMs, tension grew in the coop as well. Not by much: Most members support the status quo and ignore the politics. But in the aisles you could hear both strident sides. And Stewart even told the New York Times that Paul's wife was worried that some member might uncooperatively shoot them: "Just because it's a food coop doesn't mean there isn't some kind of wacko running around." The three rebel directors, dismayed that the coop's lawyer was supporting a Special Meeting that didn't need their confirming board vote, had an outside lawyer threaten the coordinators in a letter that said "the Board is the sole body with power to manage the coop," and that the Special Meeting, in absence of support from even a partly traitorous board of directors, could not create a committee to spend money or start negotiations without risking "engaging in fraud" or "creat[ing] unintended liabilities."

It was a dark and chilly night. The Special Meeting was in Park Slope's Garfield Temple ballroom, which was large and bright and had hideous triffid-patterned wallpaper and a big stage bordered by chunky carved menorahs and stars of David. As we entered, we collected the usual stacks of paper -- meeting rules and agenda; descriptions of committees; and the usual manifestos, such as one from a technocrat who will solve all our problems by gluing magnetic strips to our membership cards, tattooing bar codes to our heads, and adding more color to the coop Web site.

It was a record crowd. I think it started with 600, more than double the usual turnout. A friend from my anti-Gulf War days found me and kindly joined me. The coordinators sat in a clique at stage right, whispering distance from the chair-committee table. The rebel directors sat in the center of the audience, as befits populists. The room still filled even after we were called to order.

"Why is this night different from all other nights?" began Eric, who'd created the petition that had brought us together. Eric recounted the rebel directors' veto of the October General Meeting, and how he had then learned that a petition of 10% of our members could mandate a Special Meeting without the board of directors' follow-up vote. His petitions had gotten a thousand signatures -- 20%! -- within a scant week.

Coordinator Linda then explained the proposal. It had changed, she said, mostly because of member feedback. Now it included comparing other options. And thanks to the rebel directors' legal threat, the proposal now limited any committee to discussion, not negotiation, with the Building Next Door owner. This was much less wimpy than what the rebels had wanted. Their lawyer had suggested starting the proposal with the kowtowing "It is the opinion (or sense) of this body that the Board of Directors of the Coop should take the following action." The coordinators had retreated only halfway, omitting steps leading to legal entrapment, but refusing to beg the permission of any directors to do anything.

Ready, set, go! The floor was now open to all. The chair picked from raised hands, and each speaker was required to come to the microphone for two minutes apiece.

One member said he'd overheard rebel director Chandra claiming she had "voted against buying the building," despite her having vetoed a proposal to only study that goal. Chandra popped up and denied it. When her accuser was done, the chair asked us all not to personalize the issues, and to stop applauding people. Shortly after that another speaker earned huge gusts of applause when she personally condemned the rebel directors. "We did not vote them into office so they could thwart our wishes!" Then she argued that all things must grow or die, including the coop. The audience now scowled and grumbled till she was done.

A member presented a hostile amendment, forgetting that the proposal wasn't even yet formally proposed. In a stentorian Ethel Merman voice, she urged studying all kinds of growth including "federating" with other coops, not just researching the Building Next Door. "This is substantive!" she yelled when the chair said that her two minutes were over. Chastened, the chair shut up and let Ethel sing on.

The leader of a cashier squad said we should study the Building Next Door because our registers were so close to the door of the cramped current space that the cashiers "could take a hit . . . our people would go down." She may have sounded Green Beret, but she was no friend of weaponry. She earned raucous applause when she condemned the statement to the Times about Paul's wife's gun worries. (Paul, normally loquacious to a fault, was silent all night.)

At this point Eric, oddly, interrupted to ask that discussion be ended and the proposal voted on. But the proposal wasn't even on the floor yet, and a lot of pissed people wanted to speak. The chair called on more people, some pro-staff, others con. "I don't really like how the systems in this world -- or this planet -- work," complained a speaker. I think she was con. Another con: "This is a constitutional crisis. It's kind of exciting to watch!" Some members reminded us that studying the Building Next Door was not the same as buying it; indeed, I can't remember any speakers who said they wanted us to buy it at all. An old man praising Native American customs worried about the effects of toxins on his grandchildren's endocrine glands.

Dame Yadda Yadda Yadda spoke, straining to contrast ideas but always admitting similarities. Told she had 30 seconds left, she joked she'd then stop breathing. Half a minute later the chair said "time up." "But you're interrupting me, you see," she lectured, wagging her finger, and amid audience laughter she wrapped up her talk some time before dawn.

"We will split this coop in half if we vote to study a single option voted down by a majority of the coop before," warned a member. But another speaker noted our huge member turnover, something like 25% per year, and how considering that new blood and the new conditions (sardine-like crowding in the coop; maybe a better price on the still unsold building), clinging to old decisions ignores a very changed membership.

"We're filibustering ourselves. Let's get on with it!" demanded the last list's last speaker. "Perfect segue," said the chair. Coordinator Linda, speaking for the coordinators, formally proposed the motion we'd all been discussing: to create a committee to study buying the Building Next Door, getting estimates, testing for toxins, and studying all effects, including those of not buying the Building Next Door.

There was squabbling over amendments. Ethel Merman's and others were proposed, but Linda held firm: no matter how "great" the idea, she didn't want it attached to this committee, which had to be focused or nothing would get done. Four people offered amendments, and all were rebuffed.

"I'm Eric; I run your compost squad," announced the final amender. Everyone laughed. We like compost. His request: Form a second committee to explore general growth and a mission statement, and to work with the Building Next Door group. Linda repeated that she wanted this group focused or it would go nowhere, and added that Compost Eric's amendment would illegally broaden the coordinator proposal, which had to be passed, if at all, without major change from what had been advertised. "That's not a friendly proposal," the chair agreed. But the crowd began to wail, so the chair committee once again huddled, this time consulting the coop's legal advisor, possibly the only man in the room wearing a tie.

The lawyer came to the mike and admitted that forming a second committee was legally peachy, pending Linda's consent. The coordinators now did their own huddle, and Linda emerged to offer a new paragraph to their motion: To form a second, separate committee on issues of growth and a mission statement. She asked Compost Eric if that accommodated his wishes. He was as happy as a slimy yet biospherically productive compost worm. The ballroom of people sighed and became as happy as a crowd of vegetarians can possibly get. One still upset member -- maybe vegan -- demanded loudly, out of order, to know if the Ethel Merman broad-growth issues would be aired by this second committee. That's the committee's decision, said the chair.

After a long tally of audience hands, the vote to form a committee to explore the Building Next Door plus other options passed 202 to 41, with three abstentions. The three rebel directors voted yea with the rest of the crowd. And there was great rejoicing in the form of ragged yeas all around, for it was 11:00 at night and we were fucking exhausted.

Ethel Merman stood. Would the next regular General Meeting, she bellowed, start with a non-Building Next Door growth-committee proposal, similar to her own failed amendment to the proposal that passed? The chair said that future agenda items were up to the agenda committee. "Talk it over with them," said the chair. And then she gave a little laugh, and adjourned the meeting.

So in the end, the 3 who had in the name of 5,000 vetoed the votes of 40 out of 50 finally voted along with the 200 out of 250 who had come together because of the backlash of 1,000 against those 3. Those three created a little compromise out of three months of the greatest pain the coop has ever seen. And for all we know it will happen again, for they claim their battles are less important than their war, which they won't consider won. They have not withdrawn their insolent promise to override GMs as they see fit. The ball is still in the court of the rebel directors, and none show signs that they're tired of playing.

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