After short Renovation Committee and financial reports, and a quick review of Y2K preparedness -- we won't be stockpiling stuff till summer; any earlier, and even bottled water begins to rot -- we talked about thievery. Food is disappearing before it can be sold, a phenomenon called "shrinkage." And if that's not being done by outsiders, it's being done by insiders.

The coordinator leading this discussion, the first agenda item, urged us to pull our chairs into a closer, friendlier huddle. It threw me back to grade school, especially when I saw multicolored glitter on a neighboring seat.

She said that with theft at an all-time high, soon before we ask the bank for a zillion dollars for the Building Next Door reconstruction. The coop must again start a security campaign. We could crank up the markup to compensate for theft (as we do for vitamins, it turns out; the surprise of the evening was that vitamins are marked up an extra 10 percent), but that would accept theft as inevitable. Only 5 or 6 members out of our current 5,700 could be costing us our $50,000/year losses.

Our shopping rules are long and strict, but they all address past problems. They make a thief's actions look conspicuous, she continued. Upcoming additional deterrents are technological, like bar-code scanners (to reduce price-switching) and, potentially, surveillance cameras. The coordinator mentioned finding a member's wallet plugging a coop toilet: members will steal from other members, not just from the greater coop.

We actually have an "enviable" low rate of shrinkage, noted the chair. Joe Holtz agreed but maintained that it has usually been lower, and could again be lowered.

Members complained that the newly designed front end has several flaws. The new entrance desk, where members check in and register their guests, reduces control over traffic, especially with the big new iMac blocking the view. The new exit door is also less secure. A coordinator said that the exit station would be rebuilt by mid-June.

Better training for everyone was on people's minds as they told tales of rules broken, exceptions made, and procedures not known by working members supposed to enforce coop security. "The most compliant worker in the squad is the exit worker," said a member of the doorkeeper who is supposed to match your two register tapes and confirm that you're carrying the right number of bags or boxes. One member described successfully rushing past the exit worker to leave, without showing the contents of her bag, and months later getting a scolding letter from the Disciplinary and Hearing Committee -- despite her not even having identified herself, aside from resembling Jennifer Aniston.

Safeguarding the most expensive, stealable stuff -- the vitamins and the homeopathic snake oil -- is most challenging. A special counter to distribute them wouldn't work; there's no room. Several members spoke against magnetic security tags and sensor gates, afraid of "extra radiation" hurting either the elixirs' magical powers or their own bodies.

The coop, unlike most stores, encourages members to shop with their own bags, but this introduces its own controversies. Shoppers must offer all bags to the checkout worker for inspection. But many members forget to do this, and checkout workers are shy to ask. Electromagnetic Israel showed off his backpack and said that in seven years of membership, no one had ever asked to search the small pockets. I was not surprised. I don't do it when I do checkout because no one else does; if I did, inevitably I'd be accused by members for singling them out because they were black, gay, Jewish, etc. Why don't we check pocketbooks below an unstated size, when vitamins and homeopathic crap are the most stealable items?

We need to be comfortable asking to inspect bags, said a member. If every checkout worker did so routinely, no one would imagine selective enforcement. She added that "security is an aspect of community," and that the security campaign must emphasize caring about the coop so it won’t be perceived as a crackdown.

"What do you when you find something?" asked a member. "Are you supposed to grab someone, reason with them?" A coordinator replied that if you were afraid to confront an apparent thief, or were in denial about it, to talk to your fellow squad members, to know you're not alone. A squad leader suggested always being polite, defusing the situation with apologies, and falling back on stated policy. He described a successful apprehension on that basis -- well, almost successful; he'd caught them before they'd paid for their groceries, so no theft had yet been committed.

A couple of members said we should begin checking bags -- not inspecting them, but impounding them, as some stores do when you enter. Others condemned eating within the coop, in which every brat seems to be gnawing on a bagel and adults are chomping on soy ice-cream bars -- perhaps to pay for them, perhaps not. Alhough checkout lines are so slow, a member who didn't snack on the way might well be a skeleton before leaving.

Electromagnetic Israel closed discussion by warning that "theft of services" by members -- slacking during work shifts -- is as destructive as smuggling out goods in bags or stomachs. He described people half asleep at their jobs, or lounging at the book rack in back. "People just aren't carrying their weight. Five to 10 percent are goofing off," he complained.

At every General Meeting, the chairs beg the attendees to join the Chair Committee. Over several years, that has worked once. But the committee wants to double its size. The coordinators made that plea a whole agenda item for discussion.

One cochair said that she chose the job because her previous workslot had been boring, and her psychologist background meant people skills. She said that consensus-building was a pleasure, and that it didn't impose on the rest of her life. Perhaps meetings had improved since last year, when she'd said that "This isn't a particularly easy workslot. I didn't used to have to nap before it."

The other chair didn't even claim pleasure at the meetings. He said he'd prefer grunt physical labor like lugging bags and boxes of incoming shipments. But he'd been bothered by the "shambles" and lack of cooperation in General Meetings he'd attended. He said after some early rough patches, the job had smoothed out, and that he was surprised that no else was volunteering.

It was a rare, gentle, candid time between chairpeople and audience about the former's reaons for leading the meetings, if you ignored the blandishments about chairing these meetings being an everyday thing and not sometimes as painful as a gravel enema. A coordinator said that the repetitious pleas for new committee members had been "washing over" people. But the audience members knew why they didn't want to become General Meeting chairs: the audience itself. Eyes don't glaze during the pleas. They look the other way, as when a teacher asks an impossible question, or when your sergeant asks, when the latrines are full, who wants shitburner duty.

A coordinator insisted that simple attrition had reduced in size the chair committee from ten to three: "It's too easy to think that [meeting nastiness] is the reason; that's not the reason." People left because they moved or left the coop entirely, she said. Why add to the committee? It's an easier job when a large committee can give you support, she said.

One chair touted jokey benefits from an old Top Ten Reasons to Join the Chair Committee, including one's name being Paul -- though all three Pauls once on the committee are long gone.

The discussion closed with warnings from the current, overworked chairs: as volunteers, they were an endangered species. If "something happened" to them, they said, it would be very bad for the General Meeting.

Since there were no more agenda items, the General Meeting closed and the usual board of directors meeting, led by Joe Holtz, followed to confirm or reject its decisions. Since nothing had been voted on, he asked the secretary to note that the board members had received the advice of the membership.

Member Erach Screwvala, who'd spent much of the meeting cuddling his adorable newborn Screwvala, then asked that each of the board members say how they've been responding to the Building Next Door Renovation Committee activity. Board member Eric Schneider said he's spoken to committee members, and that he had liability worries about a contractor complaint that our missed deadlines were impacting subcontractors. (The Renovation Committee rep said they were formulating a response.) Board member Electromagnetic Israel said that such questions should have been asked during the earlier Renovation Committee report, and that he couldn't answer outside of the context of the General Meeting. Board member Doyle Warren complained that he'd been shut out of a Renovation Committee meeting.

A coordinator said, "for the benefit of new members," that our board of directors has never met outside the General Meeting. "This is turning into a discussion," ruled the chair. "It should be submitted as an agenda item." Schneider said thanks and strode forward to the microphone. The chair told him to go away; he had not been invited to speak, adding, "This is the end of the meeting, folks; I hate to say it, but it is. This is an issue that is not going to go away in the next five minutes."

In the criticism/self-criticism session that followed, Screwvala said that he didn't appreciate how his question was turned into a political controversy. "It was a simple factual question with no motive attached to it," he added. Finally allowed at the microphone, Schneider said that he hadn't known in advance of Screwvala's question. A disingenuous claim, considering the behind-the-scenes collusion among board members, staff, and member activists that has gone on since the food coop sold its first tofu.

The meeting finally ended, and we left our close, friendly huddle of seats, returning to the great outdoors.

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