The Raison D’etre for the Co-op Voice and our Commitment to Continue, Despite the Board’s Unhappiness

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

Do you know why the Co-op Voice exists? In early 2016, one of the founding Editors of the Voice, Cara Benson, eloquently explained, “The Co-op Voice was born out of a desire to create a space where members could communicate directly with each other and with the greater Co-op community.” She went on to write, “…this newsletter came to be to redress a distinct lack of opportunity for broader communication among members in the Co-op community. Yes, articles will appear in these pages which reflect a critical stance. However, we mean what we say in our mission. We aim to be respectful, considered, and inclusive in our decisions.”

It was, therefore, with careful consideration that the Co-op Voice Editors decided in October to publish resignation letters from two members of the HWFC Board. These letters were not Co-op Voice articles and they were not letters to the editor; they were letters addressed to the Membership. We deemed them a legitimate use of communication by two member-owners who felt they needed to reach out to their fellow members to inform them of their reasons for resigning, in apology for not fulfilling their terms.

Yes, the letters had a critical stance and aired some of the Board’s ‘dirty laundry.’ Some might equate the letters with whistle-blowing, because of the specific concerns the letters expressed about the Board’s actions (or inactions) leading up to the resignations. Because of the sensitive nature of the information included in the letters, we Editors came to feel it would be best to move the letters to a password-protected area on our website, which we did on November 11, adding a greater level of security to the information than most publications would. We also went about refining our editorial policy for letters we receive for publication in the future. This updated policy is now posted on our website.

The Board Is Not Happy

Meanwhile, as you may have noticed, the HWFC Board has not been happy with the Voice Editors’ decision to publish the two Board members’ letters of resignation. They have directed some of their upset with the Voice Editors at the entire Membership and engaged in other questionable actions over the matter, outlined below.

First, on October 15th, a few hours after the letters were published, a Board member made veiled threats of legal action during phone calls to two of the Voice Editors. The Voice offered to publish a rebuttal from the Board directly beside the resignation letters, but the offer was not taken up.

Second, on November 7th, the Board placed a “member item” on their Board meeting agenda that evening – without the knowledge of the member in question– apparently to ensure that the letters would be discussed at the meeting. The discussion went on for over half an hour. During the discussion, when this Editor was asked by a member-owner in the audience if, in hindsight, she would again publish the letters, the answer given, after some thought – and repeated when asked – was, “I don’t know if I would or not. It was a group decision.”

Third, on November 8th, a Board member joined a routine Co-op Voice meeting unannounced. When invited to speak despite not being on the agenda, she went on at length about the letters, reiterating what she had said at the Board meeting the evening prior.

Next, on November 29th, with no direct contact with the Voice, and with no acknowledgment that the Voice had already placed the resignation letters in a password-protected area of the website, the Board distributed their Inside Scoop newsletter to the entire membership, addressing it only to “Dear Co-op Voice Editors”.

In this newsletter they expressed great upset over the Editors’ original decision to publish the letters. They maintained that the Editor in attendance at the November 7th Board meeting “said she would do nothing differently if she could go back and do it again,” although several Co-op members in attendance at that Board meeting report that the answer given, and repeated, was, as previously noted, “I don’t know if I would or not. It was a group decision.”

Further, the Board stated “the Co-op Voice Editor in attendance only expressed her delight that the letters had ‘over 500 hits.’” In fact, the Co-op Voice Editor in attendance remembers feeling many feelings at the time, but you can rest assured that delight was not one of them. The “500 hits” remark was not a gleeful statement, but a factual one.

Also on November 29th, the Board used the Inside Scoop newsletter to present the Voice with a choice: either become an arm of the Board, supervised by the Communications Committee, or go it entirely alone. The Voice was given just three days to decide its fate, without any prior notice whatsoever to the Editors that this choice would be required.

Later, at the December 5th Board meeting, President Carolynn Presser was again heard mis-characterizing this Editor’s position, claiming it was said the Voice would have gladly printed those letters again. Also at the December 5th meeting, another Board member loudly berated several Voice team members over the letters issue. (This same Board member had attacked a Voice team member at the November 28th Finance Committee meeting.)

Honest Weight’s Free Press at a Crossroads

Here at the Voice we value the opportunity for a free press for our Co-op, where communication can occur regarding events in our community – even the contentious ones – and where a dialogue can be printed to ensure an accurate characterization of events. The vast majority of comments we received from readers concerning our decision to publish the resignation letters was approving. Co-op members tell us again and again that they want to know what’s really happening. One person who said she was tired of people being circumspect wrote, “I wish someone would just lay out the issues!”

In recent years, the Board had sole control of the most important mode of communication with members – e-mail – until the establishment of the monthly Voice. Not even the GRC, another official Co-op regulatory body, has permission to use the Inside Scoop newsletter, which the Board can use at will to shape and represent the facts as they want members to see them.

Now, in their November 29th ultimatum to the Voice, the Board has made clear that they want to exert control over the one vehicle for member expression via e-mail that is independent of the Board.

Does the attempt of the current Board to selectively convey the Co-op’s recent happenings (‘fake news,’ as some might call it), and their moves to suppress the Voice‘s free press remind you of anything? The similarities are amazing and dismaying at the same time. It’s with a heavy sense of sadness and shock that we acknowledge it’s come to this, a scant two years after the newly-elected Board of early 2016 set out with a strong mission and fresh hope for the future of Honest Weight Food Co-op.

Perhaps the times are calling for the end of democracy in the U.S. government and in the Co-op. If so, shall we succumb or resist?

The Voice, to honor its commitment to the Membership and to its advertisers, has chosen to continue publishing independently, and has refused forced oversight. A letter of response was submitted by the Voice to the Board on Saturday, December 2nd, explaining our position in detail. Click here to read that letter.

Voice team members submitted a signed member petition to have four items placed on the agenda for the January Membership Meeting, for a yes-or-no vote. There will be two items for additions to the Bylaws, and two for additions to the Member-Owner Manual. All of these are intended to ensure that, if voted in by Membership, a member-run newsletter INDEPENDENT of the Board can continue to exist, and that members can earn time investment hours for participating in that newsletter. You can read our Petitioners’ Statement here.

Mark your calendars for the upcoming Membership Meeting, Sunday, January 28, 2018 at 6 pm, at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church, 440 Whitehall Rd., Albany. If you are up to date with your member share and hours, you’ll be able to use your member voice (vote) then to weigh in on this issue…and, in the meantime, Happy Holidays!

Please remember, letters to the editor of the Voice are always welcome!

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.