The Co-op Voice, the Evolution of our Editorial Policy, and Helping Ensure the Future of a Cooperative Voice

Coffee pot from a 1985 Coop Scoop.
Coffee pot from a 1985 Coop Scoop.

The last several months have been marked by conflict in the Co-op’s governance, and the Voice has – as promised – been giving voice to these issues. Unfortunately, the Board’s response has included the threat of denying the Co-op Voice‘s existence as a Co-op entity and, in so doing, denying the Co-op a free press that operates independent of the Board. The Board has been so unhappy with the Voice‘s recent publication of two letters of resignation that it has additionally gone so far as to present an inaccurate history of our origins and actions.

I am a founding member of the Co-op Voice and am proud of what we have accomplished for our Co-op. This month, I reflect on just how and why the Voice was formed (of, by and for the Membership!), and discuss the importance of a free press for our Co-op. In thoughtful conversations held both internally among members of the Voice team and in the broader Honest Weight community, the need has been clear for answers to questions such as:

  • Does the Voice have an Editorial Policy and, if so, what’s in it and how has it grown?
  • Have personal attacks on Board members truly been allowed in the pages of the Co-op Voice?
  • What would the Voice do differently, if a dilemma such as considering the publication of controversial letters arose again?

I’ll be addressing those questions here and posing other questions, such as:

  • Should the Co-op’s Board maintain sole control of communication with Membership?
  • Is there inherent value to this democratic community in supporting a newsletter not under direct control of the Board, and allowing member-owners who create the newsletter to earn member hours for their time investment?
  • Is the Membership aware that the Voice decision is in their own hands?

Statements from elected officials inherently hold special weight. But, in a democracy, should they be accepted without question? Without a free press, such words – including verifiably false assertions – stand unopposed. At Honest Weight, ostensibly a democratic organization, the Co-op Voice is currently the only vehicle for e-mail communication that is not directly under the Board’s supervision. Therein lies just one of many positive attributes of this publication and its valuable contributions for our cooperative.

The Voice is Born

The seed of an idea for a member-run publication like the Co-op Voice was planted in the midst of the Great Co-op Revolution of late 2015. The then-Board had flatly refused to give the members petitioning for a Special Membership Meeting any e-mail access to the rest of the Membership, and it became clear that this situation was neither democratic nor cooperative.

Independently, a small group of member-owners had begun sharing e-mail addresses and invited others to do so. That led to members communicating directly with one another and getting to know one another. We were empowered by our simple ability to communicate with each other. Out of that dialogue, what followed was a successful effort to save the Co-op by banding together to elect a new Board that would commit to maintaining a participatory membership. That success was fueled in part by the ability we then had to communicate with one another.

A proposal for a member-run online newsletter was first presented to the ‘new’ Board on January 5, 2016, and discussed at that meeting and at three successive meetings. Provisional approval was unanimously granted on January 19th, 2016; those organizing the newsletter were asked to provide guidelines for the editorial board, submission guidelines, and a system for selecting a permanent editorial board. They were also instructed to work with Jeff Marden to ensure CAN SPAM compliance (having to do with laws governing whether the email you send is considered legal communication or an illegal piece of unsolicited spam.)

All of these conditions were met in a timely and diligent fashion. The documents that had been asked for were submitted and can be seen on pages 29, 30 and 31 of the attachments to the board minutes of March 1, 2016 (if necessary, members can obtain the password by calling the Honest Weight front desk at 518-482-2667.) Jeff Marden was consulted, and he kindly assisted the Voice in attaining CAN SPAM compliance.

The Voice Launches, and Continues to Form Organically

The inaugural issue of the Co-op Voice launched in March, 2016. On the editorial board were Cara Benson, Carol Ostrow, and myself. Unlike the member-run Coop Scoop of the past, the Co-op Voice editorial board did not include the Chair of the Board’s Communication Committee, by design. Quoting the January 19th, 2016 Board meeting minutes, some Board members “did not believe it would be beneficial for the board to be involved. If any future board doesn’t like member content, it could squelch the content.”

At no time did the Board indicate that they themselves intended to appoint future editors. Although Carol, and then Cara, stepped off the Co-op Voice editorial board and off the Co-op Voice team altogether during that first year, they had each made a substantial contribution to the fledgling publication. The Voice appeared monthly, adding new team members and evolving as a vehicle for giving voice to issues of importance to the Co-op community.

No Co-op member who expressed an interest in joining the Co-op Voice team was ever turned away. Efforts were made to determine where they’d best fit in, and team members who exhibited commitment, availability and aptitude were asked if they would consider joining the Co-op Voice editorial board. Several did give it a go, but none stuck with it until Bob Jacobs (with extensive experience editing academic texts) and Donna Aitoro-Williams (former adjunct professor of journalism, media literacy, and communication; past editor of The Clifton Park Spotlight, and contributing writer for various publications,) appeared. Bob, Donna and I now comprise the Co-op Voice editorial board. My own qualifications for the role include my work as an academic editor and a book editor. The entire Co-op Voice team became cheerfully unified in its dedication to the publication and the cooperative venture its monthly production proved to be.

Guiding and Shaping Voice Content and Policies

When reviewing article drafts that have been submitted, Co-op Voice editors and/or writers have always held the practice of consulting with Honest Weight CCO Rick Mausert, CFO Erin Martin, and/or Human Resources Director Rhoda Pickus about issues that might concern Co-op policy or development. Co-op staff have guided decisions to publish or not publish on several occasions. The Voice is grateful for their time and their guidance.

Member-Owner Coordinator at the time Janet Sorrell was part of the Voice team and often lent her guiding opinion, especially when controversial issues arose. From the start, Co-op Voice meetings have been democratic in that all Co-op Voice team members have been encouraged to speak their minds and guide the policies and practices of the Voice. They do so readily, and the newsletter is stronger for their involvement. We also receive e-mail from readers letting us know what they do or do not approve of, and these e-mails are often reviewed at team meetings and help inform our practices.

Evolution of the Voice’s Editorial Policy

The Voice’s Editorial Policy has evolved in response to situations as they arose. The Submission Guide that had been sent to the Board in February 2016 became separate Editorial and Submission Guidelines in late 2016 when an essay about President-elect Trump appeared in the Voice, and we received some e-mail objecting to the publication of political content. At that time, the following paragraph was added to the Editorial Policy:

While the Voice will avoid promotion or denigration of elected officials, candidates or political parties, references to past, current, or future government policies, laws or agendas may come into the discussion of any of the above issues.

Later, when it became clear that one of the writers who had submitted articles to the Voice too often focused the articles on personal life choices, the following paragraph was also added:

Letters, articles, and reports will focus on the topic(s) they intend to cover, and will not be primarily a vehicle for self-interest, personal views or personal disclosure of the writer.

A further improvement was made to the Submission Policy when it was determined by editors, copy-editors and web folks that certain articles containing multiple footnotes were straining the entire system. Footnotes, then, were strongly discouraged in favor of in-text links.

Another Challenge to the Voice’s Editorial Policy Arises

The Editorial Policy for the Co-op Voice was again challenged on October 12th, 2017, when a sudden request was made by resigning Board members Rebekah Rice and Kate Doyle to have their letters of resignation, addressed to the Membership, published in October’s upcoming issue, scheduled to launch October 15th.

Their request came the day after a scheduled Voice meeting, and so a decision about the letters had to be made by Voice editors alone. After careful consideration of the matter, a unanimous decision was reached to go ahead and publish the letters in the interest of free speech and transparency.

On the morning the resignation letters were published (October 15, 2017), Board member Saul Rigberg placed calls to two Voice editors sharply expressing his displeasure. That morning, Saul and Board President Carolynn Presser were offered the opportunity to submit letters of rebuttal. They were assured that their letters would be published next to the resignation letters as soon as received. Neither Saul nor Carolynn chose to submit letters of rebuttal, then or at any other time since.

Voice editors met the next day to review the decision we had made and initially felt compelled to take the letters down overnight. After receiving negative feedback from members about that move, we decided to put the letters back up. Shortly after that, it was decided by the entire Voice team to put the letters under password protection so that members and staff could view them without having the letters available to the public at large. This was accomplished on November 11th.

On November 21st, 10 days later, a member-owner who is not on the Co-op Voice team went to the Times Union newspaper, blasting the Honest Weight Governance Review Council (GRC) for perceived transgressions. Apparently, she also saw fit to share with the reporter copies of the resignation letters, then available only under password protection on the Co-op Voice website, which then ended up being quoted in the resulting article. (This same TU reporter had previously written an article quoting from one of the Board’s five Inside Scoops published in October.)

Official Board Communications—Sometimes Weaponized

After October 15th, the Voice did not hear from any member of the Board until the publication of its Inside Scoop of November 29th, in which a public demand was made for the Voice to give an answer within four days; to either agree to come under direct Board control or face effective banishment from HWFC and loss of member time investment.

Speaking of the Board’s Inside Scoop, it would seem appropriate to ask here what kind of editorial policies guide this publication of the HWFC Board. Is it truly a product of the entire Board? Do all Board members have a chance to weigh in and approve of content? What standards for truth telling and avoidance of propaganda does it hold itself to? Are there norms for length or format, and does it undergo copy-editing? How often does it appear, and what circumstances inspire its appearance? It seems only fitting that, in the interest of democratic transparency, the Membership be apprised of the standards for any communication vehicle for the Co-op.

Logically speaking, some of the same questions may also be asked about the Board’s Statement inserted into the Membership Meeting Notice recently mailed out to the entire Membership in advance of the 1/28/18 Membership Meeting. The Board’s Statement was written in opposition to the Petitioners’ Statement already in their possession, and was designed to influence the Membership’s vote at the Meeting; in crafting that Statement, what standards for truth telling and avoidance of propaganda were used? I ask because a number of assertions in both the Inside Scoop of November 29th, and the Board Statement, are patently and verifiably false.

Is Another Vehicle for Board Message Enhancement Coming Toward Us?

The January 2, 2018 report from the Board’s Communication Committee (“Comm Comm”), states in part that “the committee will create and publish a newsletter to enhance and clarify Board-to-membership communication and relations.”

Though the Comm Comm discussion at the January 2 Board meeting was tabled until the next meeting owing to lack of time, it seems likely that the intent of this intended newsletter is to supplant the Co-op Voice. Would this – another e-mailed vehicle, like the Board’s Inside Scoop, dedicated to delivering and enhancing the Board’s messages– be an acceptable exchange for the diversity of voices in the Voice?

Further Evolution of the Voice Editorial Policy

The Editorial Policy for the Co-op Voice was again scrutinized and strengthened in the aftermath of the publication of the two resignation letters. As with previous experiences that prompted changes to the Voice Editorial Policy, the Co-op Voice team reflected on use of the Voice for publication of the Board members’ resignation letters to the Membership, adding this paragraph concerning letters:

Letters from Co-op community members will be published by the Co-op Voice, as long as they are deemed by the editors to be of interest to the community. If a letter names an individual and criticizes his/her work for the Co-op or his/her behavior toward other Co-op members, or refers critically to practices or policies of a group related to the Co-op, the named parties will be notified of our intent to publish the letter and given a chance to rebut and/or clarify their point of view prior to publication.

Then, in December, visiting the Park Slope Co-op in Brooklyn, I picked up their bi-weekly newsprint newspaper, amusingly titled the Linewaiters’ Gazette. I was intrigued by their rigorous Submission Guidelines printed in a full column in every issue. In talking with staff at Park Slope, I learned that the Gazette Guidelines have evolved over time, and continue to evolve.

On my return home, Donna, Bob and I sat down with the Park Slope editorial policies – created by members of what is arguably one of the most rule-bound and largest food co-ops in the country, with many legal-minded members – and integrated them into the existing Editorial Policies of the Co-op Voice, producing the Editorial Guidelines available on the Voice website since January 1, 2018.

Interestingly for this discussion, the Gazette guidelines address head-on the topic of publishing criticism of co-op personnel, and offer the following parameters:

Letters, articles and reports must adhere to the Fairness, Anonymity and Respect policies. They cannot be hateful, needlessly inflammatory, discriminatory, libelous, personal attacks or make unsubstantiated claims or accusations or be contrary to the values of the Coop as expressed in our mission statement.

A Voluntary Article [held to a higher standard than letters] must analyze the topic it is discussing; it must present accurate, verifiable corroboration for factual assertions; it can criticize but not attack Coop practices and personnel…

These imperatives made us realize that, before publishing the two resignation letters, in addition to giving the named individuals the opportunity to read and rebut the letters before publication, we should have asked the writers to include “verifiable corroboration” for their stated criticisms in the letters. They had shared this information with the editorial board when submitting the letters, which became part of our decision to publish the letters, but we did not ask them to add these details to their letters. Going forward, we now know the importance of letting readers know specifics in any behavior that is being called out.

Also in the Gazette guidelines is the assertion that writers are responsible for the factual content of their stories, an assertion that we included in the revised Editorial Policy for the Voice. It’s important to note that, from the start, the Co-op Voice has published a Disclaimer Notice (vetted by several attorneys) on its website to protect the Co-op and the Co-op Board from damages, something that we as Co-op owners are seriously concerned about.

On “Personal Attacks”

One last note, on the topic of “personal attacks,” which neither the Linewaiters’ Gazette nor the Co-op Voice allows. “Personal attack,” also called

‘Ad hominem’ (Latin for “to the man” or “to the person”), short for argumentum ad hominem, is an argumentative strategy whereby an argument is rebutted by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself. (From Wikipedia.)

An example of a personal attack would be gratuitously calling attention to an unfortunate tendency of an individual (such as, say, habitually making nasty verbal attacks and intimidating others in a public setting,) in the course of making a separate point about that individual. It’s worth noting that if the unfortunate behavior is relevant to the argument being made, however, it would then not be considered a “personal attack” to mention it.

Does the naming of an individual, along with criticism of how they have carried out duties of their elected position, constitute a personal attack, or an “attack on an individual?” No, it does not, as Board Directors – especially those with legal training – should understand. As public figures in our Co-op world, Directors can expect to field more than their share of criticism. While we recognize that the Board members identified in the resignation letters may have had their feelings bruised, we maintain that a bit of necessary feed-back, adequately substantiated and shared in a civil manner, has a crucial and healthy role to play in a democratic setting.

As put by Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, speaking to Congress on January 17, 2018:

Any of us who have spent time in public life have endured news coverage we felt was jaded or unfair. But in our positions, to employ even idle threats to use laws or regulations to stifle criticism is corrosive to our democratic institutions. Simply put: it is the press’s obligation to uncover the truth about power. It is the people’s right to criticize their government. And it is our job to take it.

As put by Senator John McCain, in a Washington Post Op Ed, January 16, 2018:

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

The Bottom Line for the Honest Weight Membership

The HWFC Bylaws clearly state in § 330.6 that “Member-Owners have the right to communicate with each other on an ongoing basis about issues relevant to HWFC. The means and method of communication shall be included in the Member-Owner Manual.”

Further, the Member-Owner Manual lists the Co-op Voice as a way to receive time investment hours, so it is evident that the current Board’s unilateral decision to forbid any further earning of member-owner hours by Co-op Voice members does not match an earlier vote by the Membership granting the time investing outlined in the Member-Owner Manual.

The Membership of Honest Weight Food Co-op has the right to decide if it’s important for Membership to continue to have an online vehicle for communication at our disposal.

The 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.

HWFC Bylaws § 330.5 and § 330.5 b ensure that “The Membership has final approval of the nature, range and number of Member-Owner time investment opportunities in HWFC.” Therefore, the Membership of Honest Weight Food Co-op – not merely the Board – has the right to decide on whether the Co-op Voice is a valid Member-Owner time investment opportunity.

Member-Owners, please come to the Membership Meeting on Sunday, January 28th, from 6-8:35pm at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in Albany. We hope you will vote YES on all four votes of the “Vote 3” block, to ensure that the Co-op Voice can continue on as before, independently voiced and inherently connected to our Co-op.

Paula is a Co-Editor of the Co-op Voice. She's been an HWFC member since the eighties, when she first arrived in Albany. She is the co-founder and Director of Children at the Well Youth Storytellers. She has studied, researched, published and taught in the field of reading education, and has served as editor on a variety of projects.