Jim Kenyon: Co-op Election Failure

Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Only five days remain for the Hanover Co-op’s 21,000 or so members to cast their ballots in the monthlong governing board election. Is there still time to call in U.N. election observers?

This election has smelled fishy from the start. And I’m not talking about $30-a-pound Chilean sea bass in the Co-op’s seafood department.

The seven candidates vying for four seats have not done or said anything unseemly that I can tell. But the election process itself has a hanging-chad feel.

It started with a computer glitch that prevented some members from casting ballots online for a few days after the polls opened March 28. Then members who prefer to vote in person at the Co-op’s three supermarkets found they were required to put their ballot in an envelope and write their name on it. So much for the secret ballot.

Now there’s Whitegate.

Tony White, second-in-command of the entire Co-op operation, recently sent a lengthy email to a select group of members in which he recommended certain candidates over others. Along with incumbents Wynne Washburn Balkcom and Zeb Mushlin, he endorsed Harrison Drinkwater and Josh Joslin, both of whom are former Co-op employees.

It’s unclear how many people received White’s missive (he’s not talking about it publicly), but that’s not really the point. As I see it, White was trying to influence the outcome of the election for his benefit: If his favorite candidates are elected, White is pretty much assured that it will be business as usual at the Co-op.

The last thing White — and the rest of upper management — wants is an infusion of new blood into the governing board. If even a few of the 11 board members start asking tough questions about what’s going on inside the 80-year-old enterprise, life could suddenly become more difficult for management.

An email such as the one that White distributed “crosses the line between the role of the staff and the role of the board,” said John Vogel, a professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, whom I called.

Cooperatives are supposed to be democratic organizations controlled by their members, according to the Hanover Co-op’s own website. When someone in senior management injects himself into a board election, “it undermines the fundamental principle that the elected representatives are accountable first and foremost to the membership,” Vogel said.

White, the Co-op’s director of operations, also has put the four candidates that he’s endorsed in a difficult spot. But maybe that was his intent.

With General Manager Terry Appleby nearing retirement age, White is viewed by many in the organization as the heir apparent. But his rise to No. 1 would still have to be ratified by the board. Anyone who wins the election, particularly if it’s a close race, could seem beholden to White for the help he provided them — whether they asked for it or not.

It’s bad enough that White felt comfortable lobbying for his favorite candidates. He also used the email, sent on his personal account, to trash the three so-called insurgent candidates for their involvement in Concerned About the Co-op. Victoria Fullerton, Tony Roisman and Brett Tofel are part of the grass-roots group that sprouted up last summer after longtime Co-op employees John Boutin and Dan King were abruptly fired without being given a reason.

“The Co-op is under siege,” White wrote. “As a result of the dismissal of two employees last summer, a small group of individuals (has) decided to take matters into their own hands. This group, called Concerned About the Co-op, has spent the past nine months twisting and spinning information and in some cases simply lying to suit their needs.”

White neglected to mention that he was the Co-op executive who carried out the firings of Boutin and King last June.

It appears that White sent the email to many of his business contacts, including Upper Valley farmers who sell vegetables, fruits and meats to the Co-op. But it didn’t take long for the email to leak beyond its intended audience.

After seeing what White had written, seven former Co-op board members responded with a letter of their own. “While Mr. White did not claim to be speaking for anyone but himself, he is a high-ranking figure in the organization and we are concerned that the public will understand his comments as the official position of the Co-op,” they wrote to Board President Margaret Drye. “Mr. White’s communication is even more troubling because it contains several misstatements about the candidates he does not support.

“We find Mr. White’s letter to be ill considered and a poor reflection of the cooperative values which should be of paramount importance to those in leadership positions within our Co-op.”

In a phone interview, Don Kreis, the former board member who initiated the response, called White’s email an “unprecedented” intrusion into a board election. “It tends to erode the independence of the board,” he said.

I left messages for White on his office voice mail over the last couple of days, but didn’t hear back. I also stopped by the Co-op’s headquarters on Buck Road in Hanover Tuesday morning. As usual, the doors to management’s bunker (I don’t know what else to call it) were locked. I used the phone in the unmanned lobby, which is kept unlocked, to call Appleby. He told me that White’s email was not something he could talk about.

The governing board holds its monthly meeting tonight. I’m guessing some Co-op members might want to talk about it, even if management doesn’t.

That’s how democracies are supposed to work.

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