Co-op members vote to ask board members to resign
Published: Sunday, March 30, 2014 at 9:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 30, 2014 at 9:31 p.m.
About 100 members of the Citizen Co-op packed into an emergency member meeting Sunday to debate the firing of five employees last week as well as the future of the organization.
After over an hour of discussion at the Civic Media Center, 433 S Main St., the majority voted to send a letter to the cooperatively owned grocery store's board of directors, asking them to step down.
The letter proposed a ballot that would allow members to vote whether to remove the current board of directors, to elect an interim board and to reinstate the five employees fired on March 24. The vote would take place in about a month.
No current members of the board attended the meeting, though several co-op members said the board had been informed that it was scheduled.
"The core issue I think is: Who owns this enterprise? And who gets to make decisions about it?" said Edward La Combe, who outlined a historical timeline of events for the group.
The meeting was called by the co-op's membership outreach committee after five employees were sent an email by General Manager Lisa McNett that told them of their termination for theft and misuse of the company email database system and for refusing to cooperate with an internal investigation.
Employees said the disputed email, which was sent out to the co-op member email list, told members about employee efforts to form a union. Several fired employees protested their termination outside the store earlier this week.
Other issues have since surfaced, such as the high turnover of the worker representative on the board, the policies outlined in the co-op's bylaws and conflicts pertaining to the manner in which the business has been run.
"When the employees, the workers realized their representative position was not being respected, democratic decision-making was not taking place, that they were in jeopardy of losing their jobs … the workers decided the best thing for us to do is unionize so we can protect ourselves, which is a normal reaction when you feel threatened," La Combe said.
General manager Lisa McNett also was absent from the meeting, but her husband Andy McNett showed and voiced his opinion.
"They are getting caught up in what I see as the false negativity of it, and with that they are like ‘let's overthrow the board, let's do all of this stuff.' And they are doing it in a month, which I think is rushed," McNett said. "The co-op is struggling as it is; it's very fragile right now."
A major component of the Sunday meeting focused on members' visions for the future of the store, including a revision of the organization's bylaws and greater participation from members.
Member Lars Din questioned the $100 fee that individuals pay for membership.
"So for some people $100 is an affordable amount. For a lot of people $100 is just out of range," Din said. "I would like there to be a way for people who can't afford $100 to be members. In my view, a co-op is a cornerstone of a sustainable, local food economy, and there is a class issue at play there, right? If it's only for people that can afford it, then count me out."
Julie Matheney, former newsletter manager at the co-op, said she previously had access to the member email list. Though she was no longer working at the store during the recent worker terminations, she said the information sent out in the disputed email would have easily been published in the newsletter.
"If they had sent me that announcement, there is no question about whether or not I would have told the membership," Matheney said. "It would have gone in there with pictures of local produce and local sales, just like any other announcement."
Matheney also addressed the policies that the board allegedly used to justify firing the five employees Monday.
"The policies that were cited in their termination notices did not really exist. We never signed employment contracts," she said. "There were no guidelines for the use of the email list; I know because that was my job, and there wasn't even an employee handbook that anyone received when they began working at the co-op, or ever signed."
One woman broke out into tears as she expressed her concerns.
"This business is everything to us, and I wish that I would have attended more meetings, and I wish that I would have been more than just a financial support because the workers that have been fired are the ones that have been supporting our family," member Katie Conley said.
Member Davis Hart said he felt the group meeting was constructive. Though he said the organization's bylaws need revision, the only way to repair the trust and confidence of the co-ops members is to move toward a new board.
"I think it was as positive as it could be," Hart said. "I felt like the consensus in the room was overwhelming."