On a Sunday in mid-April, I rushed back from a conference in Portland, Maine to attend Honest Weight’s 2016 Board election, which was billed as a very important membership meeting.
I should confess that my long drive back was also fueled by rumors. Some members feared that there’d be an attempt to wrestle control of the Board from the hard-working directors that we’d voted in at the Special Membership Meeting last November. I’m happy to report this prediction did not come to pass.
To this observer, the April Membership Meeting felt very positive, and not contentious or tense in the least. We were told that more than 500 people attended, a much larger number than the 5 percent of working members required by our Bylaws for a quorum. (Given chronically low attendance in the past, requiring 10 percent wasn’t considered practical.)
Our Bylaws allow Board nominations to be made from the floor since often there aren’t enough candidates recruited in advance. That wasn’t the case in April. With ten candidates for seven seats, we had a choice in this election. And, refreshingly, the choice was over who would do the best job, not which side they were on! Candidate after candidate for the Board stressed his or her allegiance to Honest Weight’s values and belief in the Co-op’s promise as an alternative institution. Candidates articulated similar and overlapping priorities. Witnessing their perspectives and heart-felt concern for the Co-op affirmed for me that members’ voices are being heard!
The April meeting demonstrates how far we’ve come as a community in a few short months. Our membership has become more unified and engaged, and the newly elected Board is filled with people who care about the same issues that Co-op members have been most vocal about. So what’s behind this coming together?
I suspect it started with the shocking revelations made at the Special Membership Meeting last November. Finding out that the Board and management had been acting contrary to our interests- mismanaging our resources, and wasting a lot of the Co-op’s money to hide what was going on- served as a wakeup call. After that meeting, the Board’s character changed. It became much more transparent and information was clearer and flowed more freely. Concerned members became more engaged, a development which has been encouraged by the Board.
The unhealthy relationship of the past, where Board and management came to view themselves as opposed to membership, has been healed. Carolynn Presser, in a post-mortem on the pre-December 2015 Board, said that they were swayed by “the siren song of consultants [to believe] that they knew more than fellow members,” and they “started to believe their own press releases!” (She also disclosed that when she worked as an attorney at the state Public Service Department, she became a whistleblower.)
If you missed the April 17th meeting, here are a few excerpts from, and paraphrases of, the statements made by the Board candidates on election night and at the candidate forum that preceded it. The themes are presented in no particular order.
Allegiance to Cooperative Principles and Promotion of Honest Weight’s Values
We drifted away from our core values. We should stand on our values every chance we get.
We need to do a better job of telling the public about our values. The marketing department has been insulated from the Co-op community.
Candidates affirmed that “robust staff and member involvement,” transparency, and democracy are essential. They also expressed support for the member labor program, described by Rick Donegan as “a cornerstone of the Co-op, not a millstone around our neck.” (Ned Depew explained that the Board has taken steps to ensure that the member labor program is “as defensible as possible,” such as making the Member Labor Coordinator responsible to the Board, rather than management.)
Being a Good Employer
“No one should come to work and feel unimportant,” said Rick Donegan. “Employees are undertrained, not appreciated and underpaid,” said Kate Doyle. We need to treat employees fairly, give them respect, pay them more, and give everyone a voice in decision-making.
We should make positions full-time where possible. It’s immoral that management made positions part-time to avoid paying benefits.
The Board needs to provide oversight of management. In the past when sales goals weren’t met, no one was held accountable, and the Board and management didn’t put their heads together to figure out how to do better in the future. At the same time, the Board is accountable to the members. “You are our bosses,” said Kate Doyle.
What Honest Weight Sells and Tells its Shoppers
Gone are the days when we can put blind confidence in the nutrition, safety and ethics of foods and other products on Honest Weight’s shelves. (“The Co-op didn’t even sell coffee for the first five years because it couldn’t find a source that didn’t support despots in Latin America,” according to Tim Corrigan.) The Co-op must do a better job of screening products so they reflect Honest Weight’s values. We need to be able to trust what’s in our store.
Food labeling is necessary to allow shoppers to make informed choices. The Co-op already posts helpful country of origin information on the Bulk bins and place of origin signage in Produce, but we could go farther, for example, in relation to genetic engineering. (Carolynn Presser said that the old Leadership Management Team rejected her request for signage on which meats came from animals fed genetically engineered feed because such labeling “would be akin to a nanny state.”) Transparency and integrity in this area could also give us a real edge in the competitive natural foods sector.
Making Finances Work
We must improve the Co-op’s fiscal health without compromising our values. Financial decisions should be holistic (my word). The aim is financial solvency, not growth for growth’s sake. Candidates made several suggestions, such as strategic marketing and reducing the use of credit cards (possibly with gift cards), as fees consume 2 to 3 percent of sales. (The Board has been looking closely at the Co-op’s operations by meeting with every department head and other staff.)
[The meeting started with a presentation by Honest Weight’s interim CFO on the Co-op’s finances for the third quarter (January – March 2016) and fiscal year to date (July 2015 to March 2016). We learned that the Co-op is doing better than a year ago, in sales and in measures like gross profit margin, and our net operating income is positive where it was negative a year ago. Despite the improvements in the third quarter, we are not out of the woods yet. The membership meeting in June is devoted entirely to the Co-op’s budget.]
Two Other Challenges
Saul Rigberg advocated increasing the diversity of our shoppers, members and employees.
Finally, a couple candidates brought Honest Weight’s contract with National Co-op Grocers to our attention. (I hope to write about this in the future.) The contract requires the Co-op to source the vast majority of products from their line. Among other things, this contract poses an obstacle to sourcing local products. Carolynn warned that we face the threat of “being homogenized” and “incorporated into a virtual chain of cooperatives.”