Opinion – Restore Cooperative Principles at Hunger Mountain

by Billy Donovan

A recent article in The Bridge about the Hunger Mountain Co-op connected the challenges of being a modern co-op, with member criticism of the co-op’s leadership over the past few years. The extent and severity of the problems are complex and difficult to succinctly convey, but this overview of the basics is instructive and will help to inform members of the cause of some of the tensions that exist within the Co-op.

Our close involvement monitoring the Council, and Manager Kari Bradley, began in 2010 with the Co-op’s interest in possible expansion to Waterbury. In the ensuing four years, member input was solicited around the issues of Co-op expansion and our voting methods for expansion. From that process members expressed clear opposition to fast-track expansion of the coop, as well as to the management’s stated wish to make changes to the bylaws regarding the voting methods for expansion (and for selling the Co-op’s assets). Members have emphatically expressed the wish to retain the bylaws in their current form, which require, in part, a membership meeting at which discussion and voting takes place before any expansion of the Co-op or sale of the assets can occur.

In 2015, the Council put a bylaw change proposal before the membership that was unrelated to expansion, but upon close inspection it was revealed that language pertaining to the voting methods for expansion was surreptitiously omitted to favor the management’s position. Members were not informed of this change, and it was voted down in an avalanche of anger and criticism.

Then this past year, the council and manager once again put forth a bylaw change that was described to members as a “formatting change only,” and was merely a matter of “housekeeping” with no consequences to the substance of the bylaws themselves. This was demonstrably false. Yet again, upon close examination, the exact same language was omitted from the proposal without disclosing the change to the membership. Fortunately it was also voted down.

What is most disturbing is listening to the audio recordings of the two June 2017 Council meetings where the Council and Kari openly discuss concealing their actions from the members. The litany of justifications for the deception is alarming. What really underscored the sleight-of-hand attempt in 2017, was the fact that Kari had presented the 2018 Business Plan, which prioritized “expansion preparations,” to the Council in June and then in his verbal pitch to the Council for that plan, he focused on the problematic nature of the expansion bylaw, which in its current form could prevent his efforts. The Council complied with the secretive omission and chose not to disclose to members the true nature of the proposal. For any member who might be willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the Co-op’s leadership, that goodwill dissolves with the realization that the Council and manager have embarked on the exact same deceptive action with two different bylaw proposals, at two different annual meetings. Our governing documents and structures exist in large part to safeguard member interests, and the Council and manager have maneuvered around them to serve their own end result that the membership has consistently rejected. The Council is entrusted to represent the membership and oversee the management for us. That relationship has been turned on its head, and the Council-management marriage is now an obstacle to the members true interests.

The ethical violations described here are factual and fully corroborated through Co-op documents and records, which are available upon request. While the Council and manager deny and deflect these criticisms, we have challenged them to publicly explain their position and meet with us alongside the news-press, aka “on the record.” They have declined both of those invitations for an open and transparent discussion, and without any mechanism for member communication within the Co-op, members know little of the reality of what’s happening at the Co-op behind the rosy picture painted by the manager and president of the Council.

As we looked further into the workings of the Co-op, we find that our Co-op is contractually tied to the National Cooperative Grocers (NCG), and the CDS consulting group, both of which are “Co-ops,” although NCG is also a registered corporation. They both embrace a conventional economic model of growth, expansion, and profit amongst their members and clients around the country.

In pursuit of a deeper understanding of our relationships with these organizations, we have been requesting documentation to inform us of our commitments and orientation to them. We have recently been denied access to the 2018 NCG Business Plan, and to Hunger Mountain Co-op’s yearly contract with NCG. We have been told they are “confidential.”

The Fourth Cooperative Principle incorporated into our governing documents reads in part: “if we enter into agreements with other organizations we do so on terms that ensure democratic control by members and that ensures the cooperative’s autonomy.” We are clearly no longer living that value, and the absence of transparency further erodes the level of trust in our leadership, and their commitment to cooperative values.

There are two core forces at work within any cooperative which must remain harmonized: the business principle and the cooperative principle. These can be contradictory if not antagonistic. I believe these conflicting forces are the core problem at HMC, and it is driven by the primacy of the business principle that comes at us in hyper-drive from NCG and CDS, and then is embraced by a compliant leadership that falls prey to their savvy corporate messaging.

The natural food marketplace is extremely competitive, and there is no guarantee that food coops will survive. Yet it is a losing game to think that we are going to out-compete Walmart and Amazon through the competitive nature of the “business principle.”

If we are going to survive as a co-op we have to be a co-op. We need to have an honest discussion, not self serving end-runs around the governing rules to serve the bigger-is-better corporate mentality. We have to evolve and self-develop who we are from within, and find our place in the world through our guiding “cooperative principles” that acknowledge and practice inclusion, communication, integrity, collaboration, honesty and independence.

From this, we gain the loyalties of community members who feel like they are a part of a greater good. These values have more relevance in the 21st century than at any other time in history. Let’s be savvy and smart and build an honest future together.

Contact Billy Donovan at caplinga@gmail.com

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