by Billy Donovan
At their upcoming annual meeting November 15, The Hunger Mountain Coop will be asking members to vote on a bylaw change that would alter the current system of “voting through deliberation at a meeting,” to an “online system of voting.” As an active member-owner, it is my belief that the current system is compatible with our cooperative values and objectives, and that a shift in our procedures may negatively affect both the viability of the business and the principles we hold as the basis for our successful existence. Many of us have worked for decades in the food movement to bring us to this point in time, and we all have a responsibility to now uphold these values so they may survive for the next generation.
On July 6, the council circulated four proposals for a bylaw change. They agreed upon a list of “elements” from them all, that would then go to a committee for compromise and consensus. After much deliberation, diligent work and sacrifice, a “progressively minded” product emerged that would then be sent to the full council for a vote. However, shortly after reaching consensus, and prior to the full vote, the general manager and one council member withdrew their support in favor of a “conservative approach” that would allow for more authority by the council, and less direct involvement by the members. The “progressive” proposal then went to the full council where it was defeated, and the more “conservative” approach was adopted by a contentious 5–4 margin.
The premise for this change is that it will increase member participation in voting. While our co-op should endeavor to involve members as much as possible, it must be wary of sacrificing our ideals in doing so. All members are invited to attend the annual meeting, and we each prioritize our time accordingly. We provide childcare. The cooperative values of community discussion, breaking bread together and direct deliberation toward effective decision making has no substitute. It is the bond that we share and it produces the most prudent result as a consequence. The best solution to increasing member participation is to nurture values through inspired leadership (by the council), that results in greater vitality within the community, and an increase in attendance at annual meeting.
The content of the proposal does not allow members to amend the council’s recommendation, and the council will control the methods for information sharing and deliberation … which do not even exist yet. This bylaw change is asking you to forsake the spoken word and invest in a model of deliberation which is entirely fictitious at this point. Information will be paternalistically provided to us … maybe. It will reduce the annual meeting to an information session with no voting and the likely outcome will be diminished attendance.
If adopted, we would be giving up a voting system that has produced no bad results, in exchange for a system that would be impossible to repeal if necessary. In addition, this is more than just a bylaw change. This is the bylaw that changes how all other bylaws are changed, because our voting method is then altered. One may look through our current bylaws and be comfortable with them as they exist, but if an easily controlled system of information is adopted, our entire bylaw profile could look very different overnight. This includes the critical items of co-op dissolution, altering the articles of incorporation, merger with another entity, or building expansions and coop satellites stores.
While the intent of this proposal is noble, the content and execution is unworkable, and there will be unintended consequences that could be disastrous. As owners of a multi-million dollar cooperative, which is a vital aspect of our community that so many people depend upon for their livelihood, as well as for consumer goods, we have a responsibility to oversee its future success through the thoughtful role we play in this moment. Please vote NO on this proposal.
Billy Donovan is a member-owner of Hunger Mountain Coop, and is a farmer, writer-poet, and social justice activist. He resides in Washington, Vermont. firstname.lastname@example.org
Edited for length