Text of the Co-op Voice Co-Editors’ Speeches from the Membership Meeting, January 28th, 2018

Photo by Barry Koblenz | BaseTwelve Photo

Donna Aitoro-Williams, Paula Weiss and Bob Jacobs have together led the Co-op Voice as co-editors for the past year or so. Each of them spoke briefly at the January 28th HWFC Membership Meeting in support of the proposal on the agenda to strengthen language in the Co-op Bylaws and Member Owner Manual, ensuring that the Voice could go forward independent of the Board yet connected to the Co-op, as it had been. The text of their speeches is provided below:

Donna Aitoro-Williams

Photo by Barry Koblenz | BaseTwelve Photo

I’m Donna Aitoro-Williams, one of the three Editors for the Co-op Voice. I’ve been a member of the Co-op since 1990, when we were down on Quail Street. I’ve loved this place for a long time, as I know many of you do.

Over the years, however, I felt less and less like I was a part of our Co-op community, and began to drift away from the Co-op. Eventually, I stopped working there.

In my early years here, one of the things that had always connected me to the Co-op, and to what was going on here, was The Coop Scoop. Over the years, however, The Coop Scoop changed its focus. Articles about the board, about the staff, and about the financial status of the Co-op were few and far between. By July of 2013, the Board had moved to officially bring The Coop Scoop under the Marketing Department.

Now, don’t get me wrong: The Scoop does what it’s intended to do very well, in a handsome publication to boot, and we respect it highly. I particularly admire how they cover different organic businesses and organizations in the area.

But the Voice‘s mission is very different and, some might say, boring. But that is as it should be.

Without access to a vehicle for organizational information and news about the Co-op over the years, I began to feel increasingly distanced from the Co-op.

It was no surprise, then, that when the first edition of the Voice hit my inbox back in 2016, I once again became interested. It was written in an honest and open voice, about things that used to be written about, and that the official publications had begun to lack. The Voice filled that void.

When Paula Weiss then put out a call to the community for help with this fledgling publication, I readily agreed. I’d known her in graduate school. All the things I had respected about her then as a writer came through in the Voice‘s digital pages – an editorial stance that was balanced, content that was relevant and thoughtful, was written well, and had a smart look and feel. Once again, I saw transparency and honest reporting.

One of the myths that have been circulated is that the Voice staff are not qualified. Having taught journalism, media studies, and communication for over 20 years at the college level, written for publications both local and national, and having single-handedly produced a weekly newspaper for several years, I possessed enough knowledge of journalistic standards and publishing, and enough technological skill (I invite any of you to work with a ‘zine, or a digital publication – it ain’t easy!)—I felt up to the task. Here was a way for me to feel connected again, to bring the challenges, issues, and successes facing our diverse community as member-owners, staff, shoppers, and the wider Capital District area to our audiences.

I gladly began finding hours I never knew I had, to work collectively with a dedicated, thoughtful, qualified, and coherent team. I felt that the work the Voice did was important to our growth as an organization. It was a legitimate way for me to give back to the community.

Once again, the Co-op is at a critical juncture, and we’re faced with a dilemma. There was a reason the Voice was established. There’s a lot at stake here: 1) the free exchange of ideas and 2) the ability to hold power accountable. These truths are integral to our existence and worthy of our protection.

I ask that you consider the importance of the Voice to the Honest Weight Cooperative’s structure. The proposal which we petitioned you all on asks to strengthen existing language in the current By-Laws and Member-Owner Manual to protect the Co-op Voice’s interdependent mission – a mission that is a vital and necessary part of Honest Weight. We need it now, more than ever, as we go forward – to address the divisiveness, and to build bridges where there are now only walls. Thank you for listening.

Paula Weiss

Photo by Barry Koblenz | BaseTwelve Photo

Good Evening, I’m Paula Weiss, a founding editor of the Co-op Voice.

If you don’t know us, the Co-op Voice is a member-run online newsletter that has been publishing cooperatively for two years. It was created in the aftermath of the 2015 Special Membership Meeting when the Membership succeeded in taking back our Co-op and protecting the Member Labor Program. It was part of an overwhelming mandate for transparency from our Membership.

I’m here to tell you that the Voice has already been approved by Board and Membership during the past two years. Membership voted in 2016 for Bylaws to protect an independent Voice and in 2017 for changes to the Member-Owner Manual guaranteeing hours for the Co-op Voice Team.

For two years, the Co-op Voice has upheld standards of fairness, respect and cooperativeness. We present the Co-op in the best light in our articles. We solicit views from all in the Co-op community.

Despite the protections that have already been voted in, the present Board launched a campaign to shut us down in response to two letters from resigning Board members last October.

In the Board’s e-mailed Inside Scoop of November 29th, the Voice was given a public ultimatum that conflicts with our Bylaws and our Member-Owner Manual. We got this letter at the same time you did. This letter gave us four days to decide our fate. Why was it done this way? How was this cooperative?

Our Bylaws are clear that Membership has the final approval of Member-Owner time investment opportunities. Whether Member-Owners can receive hours for time invested on the Co-op Voice is not a decision for the Board; it’s the prerogative of our Membership to make that determination and we – the Membership – already have.

Despite what you may have heard to the contrary, from its start, the Voice has complied with instructions from the Board. The original editorial board policy and submission guidelines were submitted. They can be seen on the Honest Weight website in attachments to the Board minutes of March 1st, 2016.

Despite what you may have heard, the Member-Owner Coordinator has been part of our meetings from the start and has lent us guidance.

Despite what you may have heard, we habitually consult with Honest Weight Management about articles that have to do with the Co-op. We have a collaborative relationship with the Marketing Department. We take input from member-owners, staff and other Co-op Voice readers.

We have all been inspired by the Park Slope Co-op’s newspaper, which is published with no Board oversight whatsoever. One of their Editors wrote in an e-mail to me “Editorial independence is about editorial policy, and has nothing to do with earning workslot hours — which are earned no matter what issues may arise.”

The Park Slope Guidelines lay out policies of “Respect” and “Fairness” which the Voice has adopted. Their policies address the topic of criticism of individuals head on. Criticism is acceptable as long as it is within bounds and offers specific, verifiable evidence for any claims made.

Despite what you may have heard, a disclaimer vetted by several attorneys, protecting Honest Weight Food Co-op (HWFC), the Board, and the Co-op Voice from any damages that might arise from content we publish, is featured prominently on our website. The Voice does not pose a risk to our Co-op.

As Member-Owners, we need to remember that our Bylaws give us ultimate authority in the Co-op. With that comes responsibility to participate and to protect our rights and freedoms. Chief among them, the freedom of the press.

As put by Senator John McCain, in a Washington Post Op Ed, this January 16th:

“Ultimately, freedom of information is critical for a democracy to succeed.”

Bob Jacobs

Photo by Barry Koblenz | BaseTwelve Photo

My name is Bob Jacobs and I am one of the three editors of the Co-op Voice. I have a background in writing and editing and teaching writing but am not a professional editor and don’t claim to be. But then again the Voice isn’t the New York Times; it is the monthly newsletter of a food co-op.

The Co-op Voice was started in part to make sure the member owners were aware of important events that could affect the future of Honest Weight. When the old board was trying to eliminate Honest Weight as a member-owned entity, we found that there was no way for the members to communicate with each other about the situation. It had been a monumental task to organize against the takeover due to this inability to communicate, so part of the Voice’s charge was to keep the membership informed of what was going on with the board and with the co-op in general.

This charge seemed especially important when the board was suddenly losing its members in abrupt resignations. Remember that within a short period of time four members of the board resigned. About three months ago we received a request to publish letters from two of these board members who were leaving the leaving the board before the end of their terms. After a lot of deliberation, we came to the conclusion that we should publish these letters. We still believe it was the right thing to do and here are the main reasons. The membership has the right to know what’s going on with their governing body, so in this instance they had a right to hear what these people were saying and draw their own conclusions. The Voice was the only place where these letters could be published. By publishing these letters, we were definitely not taking sides or agreeing with anything that was written. We would have published letters from any other board members in the same situation. This was a matter of the membership’s right to know.

We are all very aware of the democracy-killing effect of censorship and the importance of a free press. We don’t need censorship at Honest Weight; we need transparency. How can you have a co-op with censorship? The two words don’t go together. How can you have an honest co-op without freedom of speech and open discussions?

Can we improve the Voice? Sure. We are a cooperative newsletter and are ready, willing, and able to learn and improve. This is the membership’s newsletter and we want and need to hear from you. We should not be silenced and neither should you. Please help the membership retain their independent voice by voting ‘yes’ to add our changes to the by-laws and membership manual.

Paula Weiss

[This is the second part of her talk, coming after the six presentations by the anti-proposal group]

Speaking again on behalf of the Co-op Voice,

Despite what you may have heard, we have never published attacks on individuals, and we never will. The resignation letters that were published in October contained criticism of the way some Board members carried out their duties. Necessary feedback of this kind is not only acceptable, it’s crucial for healthy democratic functioning. It does not constitute an attack.

The Co-op Voice team hopes you’ll vote YES on all four of the votes we are proposing, and this is why:

It’s written into our Bylaws and our Member-Owner Manual that “Member-Owners have the right to communicate with each other on an ongoing basis about issues relevant to Honest Weight.” Our Bylaws also say “The Membership has final approval of the nature, range and number of Member-Owner time investment opportunities.”

A year ago, Member-Owners mistakenly believed that these protections would be sufficient to guarantee an independent voice.

Our proposed Bylaws specify more clearly that communication shall not be limited, and shall not be denied time investment credit. This language is written on your ballots.

The current Member-Owner Manual lists the Co-op Voice as a way to receive time investment hours. It is evident, in denying us member-owner hours, the Board has made a decision that is inconsistent with an earlier vote by the Membership.

Our proposed additions to the Member-Owner Manual specify once again that the rights to communicate shall not be limited. Again, this language appears on your ballot.

And finally, I’m going to read aloud the second Member-Owner Manual ballot item:

“Member-Owners working cooperatively to maintain a member-to-member newsletter independent of the Board and Management shall publish articles representing a diversity of subjects and opinions. The publication shall be overseen by an independent board of editors applying rigorous journalistic standards. Contributors and editors shall receive reasonable time investment credits. The existing Co-op Voice will continue to fulfill this requirement until such time as it may be replaced by a vote of the HWFC Membership at a Membership Meeting.”

Our Membership has the right to decide if it’s important for Membership to continue to have an online vehicle for communication.

Our Membership has the right to decide if the Co-op Voice has conducted itself responsibly and has put sufficient safeguards in place in its Editorial Policy, its Disclaimer, its practices, and its password-protected capability.

Just like the Board, the Co-op Voice works for the Membership. Just like the Park Slope Co-op’s member-run newspaper, whose guidelines serve as a model for the Co-op Voice’s policy, we continually strengthen our editorial policy in response to what we learn.

We expect to again publish as an independent and connected entity. We would appreciate your vote to strengthen the language in our Bylaws and Member-Owner Manual. We hope you will vote YES on all four votes of the “Vote 3” block.

Thank you.