2016 Board Elections Q&A: Ned Depew

Ned Depew.
Ned Depew.

1. For leaders of organizations such as HWFC, what situations do you think require disclosure of important information to membership, and what situations do you think require confidentiality?

It is pretty clear that “privileged information” extends to any information that discusses Personnel matters in any specific detail. It also extends to information regarding sensitive negotiations, where release of the information might compromise the organization’s ability to reach the best resolution. This includes legal, real estate, contract and other negotiations. As soon as the risk of compromise is past, however, the results of all such negotiations should be available to the membership, as long as their release doesn’t compromise privacy issues for individuals.

2. Give an example of how you have compromised in a group decision-making process.

In the recent decision of the Board to set a “deadline” for election applications – even though I felt that this provision was not clearly enough defined, nor considerate enough of the overall desire for inclusion and openness in the election process, I yielded to the collective opinion of the Board that is would be expedient to set such a bar.

There are many examples in the minutes of the Board going back over the last two years, with the previous Board and the Current Board, of both times when I stood by my principles, often as the sole representative of what I thought was right, and was voted down, and of times when I voiced serious concerns and reservations about actions the Board proposed to take, but in the end, in the interest of solidarity and an understanding that there is more than one “right” approach to any issue, was willing to go along with the decision of my fellow Board members.

3. How can the Co-op survive financially without compromising its values?

As Tracy Frisch insightfully described in her recent Voice article, the Co-op is not “competing” with big-box corporations like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Market32/Golub, Walmart “organics,” or Hannaford. Trying to compete with such organizations on their terms is a fight we are bound to lose.

As Frisch points out, it is our unique identity, the enthusiasm and knowledgeability of our members and staff, both paid an member-worker – the atmosphere of our store, and the community that we create there that makes us a special place to shop.

We cannot – and should not – over-emphasize the “mass audience.” If those people find their way to us (and many will), so much the better. But it is by being something unique and different that we have made our reputation and built the loyalty that sustains us, and that is what will carry us forward. We must use the enthusiasm, knowledge and activism of those members and staff who can and will, to reach out into their spheres of influence and build our member and shopper base across the region.

Our values are our main marketing point. They give us an enormous advantage in a marketplace that generally offers only clever ways of separating shoppers from their dollars, without regard to ethical, health, community or environmental issues.

4. Per the Bylaws, Members have operational control over HWFC; what does that mean for Board members? Are you in favor of the Membership having the ultimate decision-making authority?

I am, as I have shown again and again. While it is true that an organization like ours needs trusted, competent management to make the day-to-day decisions that maintain functionality, it is the essential task of the Board (and one in which they failed over the past three years) to oversee the general outlines of that management, to guide and support the management in maintaining a course consistent with the Co-operative principles, our Mission Statement, and the expressed will of the Membership.

While the membership can’t be consulted on every detail of operations, it is essential that a record of those details be clear and available to Membership; that Membership have the information and access to question the Board about directions the Co-op may be taking; and to bring the decisions on issues to the full Membership when that is called for.

There are many models of such a successful management style in Europe, (from which we can learn), and Honest Weight is in a position to join with other Co-ops in pioneering this alternative to capitalist corporatism here in the US.

5. Over the past few years many staff members have talked about unionization. What are your thoughts on this?

I support strong unions. The Union movement made America strong and great. In Europe, it has continued to peacefully revolutionize societies, creating a more just, productive, prosperous and equitable life for citizens of countries like France, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, and many others.

That said, I think the Co-op is already one big Union – a union of all the members. Our principles encourage us to work together democratically, fairly and collegially for the common good – that’s the same primary goal of a union.

The Staff have redress through membership. They can bring their concerns to the Board – as many have to me in my years of service – and even go over the Board’s head to the General Membership if they feel the need to do so. The membership has shown time and time again that they understand their commitment to the staff, and the importance of treating the staff fairly – and more than that, as well as the organization can afford.

I have supported (and taken part in) Staff self-organization efforts over the years. I continue to believe that is the best way for the Co-op staff (of which I am a member!) to move forward. I’m concerned that involving an outside union organization, that may not fully understand the special conditions of a Co-operative workplace and that may have an agenda of its own, could distract us from solving our problems among ourselves, which is what we have done best over the years.

6. How can we make the Co-op more accessible to low income people in our community?

There have been a number of plans floated over the years. The installment plan share sales has been one of the most effective, allowing people to get full participation for as little as $10 up front. I’m not in favor of buying shares outright for low-income people, because I think invested-ownership (even if the investment is only $100, which is hardly an exorbitant sum) is an important part of feeling like a committed member.

At the same time, I’d like to explore the logistics of extending a smaller discount, 5% or less, to those shopping with EBT cards, and explore whether there is a way we can meet WIC guidelines to participate in that program (and hopefully influence it towards improvement!).

I think education is a major part of this process, getting out – hopefully with owner-labor – into the underserved communities of the region, and showing people how they can eat better for the same amount of money – or even less – at the Co-op, as well as the health benefits of eating better food, and supporting the regional food-economy. If they can’t find every product they want, they can cherry-pick and buy what’s cheaper and on-sale at the Co-op, while continuing to make their other purchases where they will.

7. How would you empower the HWFC staff to participate in store management decisions?

As I said above, I think the staff is already empowered to participate in management decisions. I’m a staff member, and I’m a member of the Board, one of nine who oversee those who make those decisions.

As a member of the Board that defined and instituted the Leadership Team, I was a champion of the concept of Servant Leadership that emphasizes the “service” aspect of leadership authority. I urged that the LT be required to get SL training, and show how it was being implemented throughout the store. Unfortunately, I lost my seat on the Board for a year, and when I returned, was shut out of the oversight process on the grounds that there was an inherent conflict of interest in having a staff member participate in oversight of management (despite the fact that this is standard procedure in many companies where employees sit on Boards). Therefore, I was unable to influence the adoption of these principles within HWFC. In my opinion, part of the failure we have witnessed in the past year or so has been from the failure of the Board to follow up on this critical issue.

I have continued to advocate with the current Board that whatever management structure we put in place, we insist on this kind of “bottom-up-to-top” organizational model, which has a proven track record of effectiveness.

8. Have you read the Food & Product Manual? If you are aware of the changes it’s gone through in the last 6 years, tell us something about that. What is the HWFC Food and Product Policy, and how would you uphold it as a member of the Board?

The Food and Product Policy is clearly stated in the F&PM. I won’t restate it here. I believe the Co-op has undertaken a unique responsibility to deliver high-quality, healthy food and responsibly sourced and produced products to our customers. I believe the Policy Manual gives excellent general guidelines for our Buyers in all Departments to make good buying decisions. I believe the Staff needs to be empowered to interpret the F&PM in making those decisions, and that individual members have the right to question buying decisions based on those guidelines.

I believe it is the Board’s role to see to it that management balances the needs of commerce with the freedom of customers to make buying decisions as they choose, and insure availability of products customers want that don’t specifically violate the F&PM. At the same time, it believe it is incumbent on the Co-op to provide a high level of education, mainly through labeling, so that our customers can make informed buying choices. One of our most valued services to the community is our willingness to inform our customers fairly, and allow them to make their minds up for themselves.