TALES FROM THE COOP foody.org/coop.html
YOU WIN SOME, YOU LOOSE SOME
The meeting began (okay, I was late, but who cares what happened before?) with mega-coordinator Joe Holtz announcing the installation of the new checkout counters. I saw them when I shopped the next day. Wonderfully professional and wide things of steel-girdled plastic, with conveyor belts, they make you want to offer your Metrocard instead of your membership card. Good riddance to the rickety, dirty, narrow wood tables used for checkout since the coop sold its first bean.
Holtz praised the open-meeting design forums he'd organized after gunning down the Project Development Team. He said there was "a lot of good, positive energy at the meetings; it's felt very good. And I hope that in tonight's first agenda item, we can establish a committee." This was surprising, since the coop newsletter, better known for gushing that "members praised each other's cooperative attitudes" when they're really throwing tahini jars, was reporting the meetings as being reenactments of "The Lottery," with Holtz at the center. Yet as the evening followed, only good things were said about those forums, later described as "open and earnest."
After the chair warned that "this meeting will not tolerate demagoguery," board member Eric Schneider succinctly described his proposal to recreate a mostly member steering committee to supervise renovating the Building Next Door. The committee would "work on all aspects" of construction. It would be created by this General Meeting (making it indestructible by Holtz, who was able to axe the Project Development Team because it had been created more informally), would report to the General Meeting, and its own meetings would be open to the public. Schneider too praised the open design meetings mentioned by Holtz, adding that they had become a strong ad hoc group for keeping alive the renovation planning.
The audience response was wary. One member didn't want any participants "who cannot get along with our staff," which she praised fulsomely. Others complained that the proposal was too vague.
Schneider said that the past open meetings, from which this new steering committee would arise, had "good vibes." Holtz concurred, adding, "To have a good project, we have to stop worrying about how decisions are made." Holtz also asked that voting for its members be restricted to people who had attended the past open meetings, to limit undue influence on the committee's creation. "If not," he said, "I have to call everyone I know and break the fire codes at the coop. . . . It's far too important to leave to chance." I thought people would attack his wanting to limit the franchise, but the crowd liked it, so Schneider accepted it as a friendly amendment.
So many friendly amendments followed that Schneider stumbled and raced through them vaguely. When he asked amendment contributor Erach Screwvala if he'd missed anything, Screwvala said, "Please don't be offended, but I don't know what the hell you're talking about." After a productive huddle over wording, the revised, now much longer proposal was read. The crowd overwhelmingly approved the steering committee 106-5, with 7 abstentions.
The next proposal, Screwvala's, was less favored. It called for a mass meeting of the membership to expand the board of directors to 15 members plus one coordinator, instead of the current 5 members plus one coordinator. He said this would make it big enough to withstand "hijacking" by any small group, and that it would have greater, better defined powers. He then suggested a unique 10-minute "brainstorming" period for people to free-associate about what qualities a better board should have.
"Point of order!" shouted board member Electromagnetic Israel, complaining that the chair, who was one of the proposal's many proposers, should recuse himself for a conflict of interest. One of the cochairs replied that Israel was looking at the whole chair committee, all three members. The chair would stay, easily overrulable by the other two members. The chair added that members from the floor could move to overrule the chair.
But not everyone wanted to play free association. "Brainstorming is counterproductive! A fuller proposal should've been brought to the agenda," railed one member. Screwvala answered that it would help get a sense of the General Meeting. He added, addressing coordinator Mike Eakin, "I don't know why you think this is so funny."
"Is this discussion for brainstorming or for the real proposal? I want to overrule!" said Israel. "Who is this guy?" someone grumbled. " 'Who is this guy'? I'm a coop member," groused Screwvala, first stomping toward his challenger and then stalking back and forth before the audience.
The chair demanded order, reminding us that the meeting was based on mutual respect. The audience began offering brainstorms. "Accountability." "Progress." "This is about democracy." "Representation, cooperation." "Eliminating tie votes." "What would the GM's role be?" "Wider base of representation on the board." "Lateral decisionmaking model versus pyramidal power structure." "Undirected evolution." "How will board members be trained and educated? How will information flow? How will lines of communication change?"
Holtz rose to say that changing the bylaws in a mass meeting of the membership to reshape the board of directors would require only a majority vote, not two-thirds as Screwvala had said. Screwvala said no, that not-for-profit corporate law demanded two-thirds. Holtz replied that cooperative corporation law allowed a simple majority, and noted that that made it easier. Mollified, Screwvala said okay.
We drifted into more substantive discussion. A coordinator questioned calling an expensive, complex special meeting at all instead of simply using the General Meeting. (The unsaid answer being that a GM vote, unlike a Special Meeting vote, would require approval of the current board of directors.)
"How would the board relate to the staff?" was the rhetorical question of Hayley Gorenberg, coproposer of the amendment and the writer of a coop newsletter article describing mostly anti-Holtz discord at the open design forums. A bigger and better board would now be responsible for giving the membership information, not just raising hands to confirm or reject GM votes, and could have handled the last GM's weirdness of wanting to but failing to increase the coordinator raise from 4% to 6%. She also said that after last year's uncooperative armed robbery, Holtz had been unsure about going to the GM for approval to install a police-recommended surveillance camera. A better board would make such responsibility more clear.
A coordinator countered that Holtz's inaction showed that he knew that the membership wouldn't want a camera installation by fiat. "It's a proof of him knowing when not to use power."
A member objected to using the building-signing crisis as a reason for redesigning the board. "This is like deciding to hold a Constitutional Committee if you don't like Congress. What could come of that?" ("Progress," growled someone.)
Most speakers pleaded for more time to debate such a specific proposal. Changing governance has been discussed for years, but more generally. "This issue will not go away. . . . Entropy has happened; the egg is cracked and is lying on the floor," said one member. Holtz, she added with a little more clarity, would not be around forever; we must beyond a coop centered around "one major personality." Other simply praised Holtz's "integrity, vision, committment."
Board member Melinda Marx protested the "technocratic" approach to the board-redesign proposal, and said that coop growth was too important to allow to evolve undirected. Define "bigger" and "better," she challenged. Other members worried expanding the board would turn GM attendees into passive observers. One member complained that Screwvala was skirting the issue of authority. If we vest a board with greater power, he said, they will make the decisions, not the general membership. "We're talking about changing a messy, dirty, scruffy, ratty, irreverent democracy. . . . We'd be making the trains run on time. Sometimes we don't want the trains to run on time."
The chilling invocation of fascism put a pall on the rest of the meeting. Gorenberg retold the inability of the GM to deal with the Building Next Door purchase or the dissolution of the Project Development Team. Screwvala said that the current direct-democracy GM could be packed just as easily by special interests (referring to the coordinators) as the upcoming meeting to approve the new steering committee members, which Holtz had baldly threatened to pack himself.
Finally the proposal was reread. A member immediately challenged it for being different from the printed agenda. The chair said Screwvala had changed it in response to all the helpful discussion. We voted and it failed 43-61 with 9 abstentions. The board of directors, ever changeless, voted 6-0 to approve the GM's votes.
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