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Co-op Board Hears Concerns at Long Meeting

Hanover — About 300 members of the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society packed the Hanover High School auditorium Wednesday, with many demanding that two fired employees be reinstated and denouncing the way Co-op Food Stores management handled the terminations.

Others, including several Co-op employees, voiced their support for management during the 90-minute session set aside for member comments prior to the Co-op governing board’s monthly meeting.

In June, Dan King, 56, a manager of the wine section, and John Boutin, 61, a clerk at the cheese counter, said they were individually called into the manager’s office and told by Co-op operations director Tony White that they were being terminated, effective immediately. Both men said they were told that the Co-op was exercising its right as an “at-will” employer to dismiss them without notice or explanation. Both had worked at the Lebanon Co-op location for more than 10 years.

Some Co-op members have speculated that King and Boutin were fired because they were critical of the Co-op’s management. At Wednesday’s members-only meeting, several people criticized the board for not stepping in.

“I think that the board should hold itself to higher standards,” said Ruth Sylvester, a former Co-op board member. “They should reinstate these guys, especially if they were fired because they were speaking truth to power. You should invite these guys to talk with you and hear what they have to say. And you should investigate the motives of whoever decided to fire these people.”

Tensions ran high even at the start of the meeting. Some members questioned why the board would not allow them to make audio or video recordings of the meeting. Although one member tried to videotape the meeting, Co-op lawyer Charlie Bauer, of Concord, told the audience, “this is a private business meeting. The fact that it’s in a public space does not change the private nature of the business being conducted. The board can therefore enforce their rules and regulations.”

With eight board members and Co-op general manager Terry Appleby sitting at tables at the front of the auditorium, Steve Taylor, former commissioner of agriculture in New Hampshire and Plainfield town moderator, presided over the session. Taylor limited members to two minutes each for their comments. The board took notes while members spoke, but did not respond.

Bill Craig, a Thetford resident, criticized the Co-op’s terminations of Boutin and King and their style of doing business.

“Trying to have a bigger store, trying to build more stores — I think it’s a losing game and an unwinnable war and it’s not what co-ops do,” Craig said. “And marching employees out the door on the same day — no message can be sent by that behavior other than fear and punishment. I encourage the board to ask why the employees were fired in this way and what they hoped to achieve. The behavior demonstrates the intent.”

The Co-op, which has four stores and 21,000 members, has been around for 75 years. But some Co-op members said they were worried that the firings signaled the Co-op may be going in the wrong direction.

“It’s not just about two loyal stalwart employees, as much as I sympathize with them,” said L. Perry Curtis. “It’s also about the present course and the future of the Co-op. If management continues their present course, I think the Co-op is going to implode.”

Patricia Cashman of Newbury, Vt., said that she “could really see unhappiness” in the employees that she had interacted with while shopping.

“The Co-op is a community to me,” she said. “I can’t really afford to shop there, but I do, because I want to support the employees.”

But several Co-op employees who spoke at the meeting said that they appreciated the Co-op’s work environment and did not feel at all intimidated by management.

“I’ve been a Co-op employee for 12 years,” said Jamie King, who did not specify his position nor the Co-op location where he was employed. “I never knew Dan and John, and I’m sorry they lost their jobs. However, it’s time to move on. The Co-op is not perfect, but it strives to get better and improve. They will learn from experience and members’ comments. Let’s move forward with the loyal members who are shopping at the Co-op, and the 400 happy employees who are working there.”

Terry Weston, wine and cheese manager of the Hanover Co-op store, said, “it is sad the way that John and Dan were fired, and I think the manager could learn from this.”

But Weston said it didn’t change her feelings about the Co-op.

“I’ve had many jobs, and I’ve never had such a wonderful place of employment. We’re a team, and a family, and it feels that way when you walk into the Hanover Co-op,” she said.

At the beginning of the meeting, two petitions were submitted to the board. The first petition, signed by 500 people, asked that Boutin and King be reinstated with back pay and that the board re-evaluate current labor practices. The second petition, signed by 744 people, simply said that the members wanted to hold the Co-op to a higher standard.

Carl Peterson, a former board member, said that Co-op members, himself included, needed to take more responsibility for the running of the Co-op. He urged people to run for the 10-member board, which will have three openings next year.

“It’s our fault that this is happening,” Peterson said. “I feel that I have to personally apologize to Dan and John for what’s happening here. I think we can do better.”

Heather Bagley is the executive director of Willing Hands, a charitable organization that works with the Co-op to distribute food to those in need. She urged the members of the Co-op to be calm and deliberate.

“I think of the Co-op as a partnership, and when challenges arise in a partnership, it’s best to refrain from gossip and quick action, like selling shares,” Bagley said.

However, Bill Clauson, who has practiced law in Hanover, said that if Boutin and King were terminated for criticizing management, they have a good case against the Co-op under New Hampshire common law.

“In New Hampshire, you can make a claim for wrongful discharge, and get back pay and be reinstated,” Clauson said. “Walking them out and not giving them a reason for their discharge gives (Boutin and King) one heck of a case.”

After the period for member comments, most of the 300 members in attendance left, and the board continued to meet. Board President Margaret Drye said after the meeting that a task force is being organized to re-examine the Co-op’s labor practices. It will present its findings at the August board meeting, said Drye.

In a brief interview, Drye said that she was pleased that so many people turned out. She would not confirm or deny members’ assertions that the board knew about the reasons behind Boutin and King’s firings, saying only that management acted within the authority they were given.

“We have heard everything and taken copious notes,” Drye said. “Now we have to sift through it all and analyze.”

Correction

An earlier version of this story misidentified L. Perry Curtis and incorrectly said the board went into executive session.

Lauren Bender can be reached at lbender@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.