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Jim Kenyon: Do Co-op Members Finally Have a Voice?

Published: 5/31/2016 11:52:09 PM
Modified: 6/1/2016 11:44:33 AM

On the eve of its 80th anniversary, the Hanover Co-op supermarket chain appears to have reached a crossroads. Is it truly a consumer cooperative in which members have a strong voice in how the four stores are run? Or is the Co-op just another Whole Foods wannabe?

I’m guessing that many of the Co-op’s 21,000 members couldn’t care less about its inner workings. They’re just happy to have a place to buy wild Sockeye salmon and organic baby kale.

But about 2,400 members cared enough to cast ballots in April’s governing board election. By Co-op standards, it was a good turnout. Just three years ago, the election drew fewer than 700 voters.

Whether you agree with them or not, the insurgent Concerned About the Co-op folks deserve credit for getting more members to take an interest in how the $70-million-a-year enterprise conducts business.

The grassroots organization, which popped up two years ago after two long-time employees were abruptly fired without being told why, spurred both the rabble rousers and supporters of the status quo to take stock of what it means to belong to the Co-op.

Still, when only 11 percent of members take the time to vote, I’m not sure that any faction of the 12-member board can claim to have a mandate.

In April’s election, Concerned About the Co-op’s presence on the board grew from three to five seats. Not quite a majority, but enough to wake up the old guard, who for years has been content to operate the governing board as a glorified garden club. (After attending a few meetings in which dinner was served, I got the feeling that the biggest decision facing board members was whether to have a second helping of roast potatoes.)

At last Wednesday’s board meeting, the first since the election, Concerned About the Co-op’s Anthony Roisman was elected board president. Roisman, a Harvard-educated lawyer, ran unopposed, so maybe that’s a sign of a power shift.

Roisman cautioned me not to read too much into the vote. “If everything is unanimous, pretty soon the board stops paying attention,” he said. “Diverse opinions are important.”

Concerned About the Co-op talks a lot about a need for greater transparency in the way the board and management interacts with members.

But can it deliver?

An early test comes at the board’s next meeting on June 22 when board members are expected to decide whether to start tape-recording its monthly sessions.

Former President Margaret Drye, who didn’t seek re-election to the board after serving for 13 years, was adamant that record-keeping of board activities be limited to written minutes. She also refused to allow Co-op members who attended meetings to make their own audio or video recordings.

If Roisman can’t muster the votes to buy a tape recorder, Concerned About the Co-op’s transparency campaign is in trouble.

Then again, if the board’s general manager search is any indication, it already may be.

Although Terry Appleby, who has been at the helm for more than 20 years, won’t be retiring until the end of this year, Drye took no chances that Concerned About the Co-op might hijack the hiring process. (No one from the group is on the search committee.)

The committee, headed by Michael Bettmann, a Drye loyalist, was up and running long before April’s board election. At last week’s board meeting, Bettmann announced the search had already been narrowed to four candidates.

He didn’t mention the total number of applicants, or how many of the finalists, if any, were women or minorities. On Tuesday, I emailed Bettmann, who was kind enough to get back quickly.

“We’ve had over 20 candidates to consider, and we have been actively looking for women and minorities candidates,” he responded. “Much of what the committee is doing now is vetting candidates, so specifics are confidential.”

In other words, the Co-op continues to operate on a need-to-know basis. (And I clearly don’t need to know.)

The full board is expected to hear the committee’s recommendations — likely between one and three finalists — at the end of the month. It’ll be worth watching to see whether Co-op members will have an opportunity to meet the finalists before a decision is made.

It would also be helpful to know how much the new GM is going to earn. Past boards have kept the salaries of top management a closely guarded secret.

And speaking of secrets, Co-op members can expect to remain in the dark about the settlement of the wrongful termination lawsuit filed by former employees John Boutin and Dan King.

The recently-completed settlement includes a confidentiality clause. Tea leaf readers could probably learn a great deal, if only they knew which side proposed the clause. Typically, the losing side tends to believe silence is golden.

Still, I had to try.

“Because it’s confidential, I really can’t comment on it,” said Norwich attorney Scott McGee, who represented Boutin and King.

Co-op members deserve to know how much money, if any, Boutin and King are getting — particularly if it’s coming out their dividend checks. Or does the Co-op have insurance to cover such settlements? If so, what’s the deductible?

I emailed those questions to the Co-op’s attorney, Thomas Pappas, of Manchester, on Tuesday. I didn’t hear back.

I guess Co-op members will have to wait and see. If the price of organic baby kale suddenly skyrockets, they’ll know why.

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Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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