Sadly, this is my last task as a Board member. I welcome the new Directors to the Co-op Board and hope they find the work as stimulating and as rewarding as I found it.
Many challenging projects face the new Board—the expansion to a second retail site, the move toward patronage rebates, and the modernization of outreach and Board engagement with Co-op Owners. But as policy governance Board, the Directors also face longer-term issues, and it’s these issues that I want to raise—from a highly biased perspective.
The issue of Owner benefits and Owner discounts at the cash register remain an ongoing Board discussion—with much Board support for discontinuing Owner discounts at the cash register. I take issue: whether we call them non-Owner surcharge or Owner discounts—point-of-sale price differences on purchases are a frequent reminder that Ownership is vital to a grocery co-op and that a co-op belongs to its Owners.
Any new site can offer green alternatives, but rehabbing can offer design that fits into the existing neighborhood in ways that reflect the history of the neighborhood. As we examine traffic and parking lot issues at both stores, we also need to ensure that any traffic study we commission looks at all forms of motor and non-motor traffic equally. Pedestrians, bikes, wheelchairs, unleashed children, and aging Owners must be considered part of traffic, or else we move toward cars-trump-design values.
As a co-op, we need to contribute to the viability of other co-ops. We have the capacity to offer a monthly column in the Reader to neighboring co-ops such as the Yahara River Co-op in Stoughton, a beautiful fledging co-op in need of stronger customer support. Featuring regional co-op attempts across the sector in the Reader and creating co-op tours as well as farm tours can offer not only information about the people involved but also about the background for the co-op movement. The Board itself can and should, I believe, move toward active engagement with other co-op boards. Such engagement makes all co-ops involved stronger.
Worker collective issues
Currently Co-op workers are allowed to run for the Board, but that permission does not guarantee worker representation on the board. I firmly support the creation of an unelected position on the Board for a Co-op worker—selected by the Employee Council according to their own guidelines and decisions.
The Board has oversight of the Co-op financials and budgets for expansion and other projects. I firmly believe that the Board should formally train all elected Board members in reading and understanding the implications of the financials over which they have oversight. Enough said.
The Co-op is a valued player in the community in which the store is situated. The management team retains a membership on GWABA (Greater Williamson Area Business Association), but given the needs of the Board to understand and participate in the immediate business community, I believe that the Board should also designate a Board member as representative to GWABA. I also feel that the Co-op, as part of the ’hood, should formally post to the ’hood listservs (e.g., einpc, sasy-na, mna, gwaba)—whether done by the Co-op admin, the Co-op outreach staff, or the Board President.
Accountability and transparency
In the last year, the number of closed executive sessions of the Board has increased. I ask the new Board (a) to move to clear public definitions of what should and should not be discussed in executive session, and (b) to make the subjects (not the content) of such discussion public on the Board agenda and minutes. The Board currently requires a unified voice and individual support of controversial Board decisions. For the sake of accountability and transparency, I believe that the Board should move toward a system of minority and majority opinions so that Owners (a) can trace the arguments behind decisions, (b) hold Board members accountable for the positions they take, and (c) clearly see the actual issues at stake in any election.
To a large degree, the Co-op works with and buys from small family farms and dairies, many of which depend on the strength of organic standards. What we buy, where we buy it, and from whom we buy it is increasingly important. I believe that the Board should move toward a formal policy of continual informational outreach to both its Owners and non-Owners (through the Reader and in collaborative workshops with such organizations as the Family Farm Defenders) on the issues facing sustainable small family farms and dairies and the threats to organic standards.
And lastly and importantly
The Co-op is a well-run, for-profit business, thanks largely to our remarkable general manager, Anya Firszt. Yet the Co-op grew from and remains rooted in a cooperative model of business based in strong cooperative philosophy. The new Board has been elected at a time when the temptation—nationally—has grown for co-ops to become corporate in structure and to limit and reduce the difference of status between Owners and non-Owners. Implementation of such a change, however, would, I believe, mean moving toward being primarily and merely a retail store. I, therefore, challenge the new Board not only to engage energetically with the local issues I have presented here, but also, in the face of this strong national temptation to “change,” to instead reground our retail store(s) in the meaning and philosophy of cooperative business—transparent to, accountable to, and actively owned by its members and respectful of its workers.