Fate of West Side Store Depends on Audit Results
The mood at La Montañita Co-op these days is anything but cooperative.
Since late last year, when the “Take Back the Co-op” movement gained a majority on the co-op’s board through an election and board resignations, the anger that preceded the election seems to have intensified.
One of the co-op’s old-guard members accused the newbies of being “insane narcissists,” while another charges that they’re behaving like the very corporatists they complained about. Worse, they claim the new board wants to turn the co-op into a club where only wealthy elitists can afford to shop.
The new board president, Elise Wheeler, fires back by saying that the previous administrators of the co-op spent too much money on unnecessary executive positions, approved a cushy consulting contract with an insider and gave raises to executives even as the co-op was losing money.
In early February, the new board basically fired Executive Director Dennis Hanley and his top assistant. Technically, they said, Hanley wasn’t fired because his position was “eliminated.” That led long-time co-op member Martha Whitman to accuse the new board for acting like profiteering corportatists it ran against.
What all these changes mean for the future of the 40-year-old, 16,000-member co-op isn’t clear.
Wheeler said the board will conduct a thorough financial audit of La Montañita’s operations before deciding whether to close its West Side store or to make changes to its distribution center.
The harshest criticism for the new board came from former board member Tammy Parker, who resigned in December. She said the new board members made her “nauseous.”
“The co-op is going to hell in a handbasket because we’ve got a board full of insane narcissists, and that can’t go anywhere good,” Parker said. “It’s elitism. It’s people who have enough money that they can go ahead and say, ‘I want the perfect food store to shop at. I just want it to be there for me. No one else can eat there.’
“It’s a disjointed group of people who never should have gotten into power in the first place. It is so incredibly dysfunctional. I was getting nauseous thinking about having to go back to a meeting and sitting with those people.”
Whitman, who has been involved in the co-op since it was formed in 1976, said Hanley’s firing smacked of the very corporatism the “Take Back the Co-op” people campaigned against.
“They’re using the corporate tactics of eliminating positions. It’s interesting in that they accused us of being corporate and that now they are acting in that same manner,” Whitman said. “They have no interest in our history and in the way we have done things.”
Whitman said the new board has junked a contract it had with CDS Consulting Co-op. She’s a CDS consultant and was paid under the contract the firm had with the co-op.
The new board has also told staff that they can’t go to any national co-op conferences this year, Whitman said, adding that new board members refused to attend a seminar to train new members and that they took down a YouTube video of December’s contentious board meeting. In addition, Whitman said the new board members haven’t told co-op members that the organization’s finances had stabilized after losing $308,000 in fiscal year 2016.
During the first quarter of the current fiscal year, the co-op broke even, and during the second quarter it posted a slight profit, Whitman said. “The cash flow is coming back, so there is no emergency,” she said.
Wheeler said the new board’s management reorganization will save the co-op $300,000 a year in salaries and will put the organization on the road to profitability. She added that she couldn’t discuss the co-op’s current finances.
During the run-up to last year’s board elections, the Take Back the Co-op movement blasted the existence of the West Side store, saying it wasn’t profitable and constituted a drag on the co-op’s finances. Some members of the insurgency questioned the need for the co-op’s distribution center, which allows local farmers to sell their food throughout the state.
Wheeler, a retired Air Force veteran, said the board will make decisions on what to do about the West Side store and the distribution center only after getting the audit of the co-op’s operations.
“We really have to wait until that [the audit] comes back. We would not anticipate anything in the next couple of months. We will have options to present to the membership,” Wheeler said. “It is not going to be a board decision; it is a membership decision.”
Wheeler also said that new board members didn’t attend an orientation because it was scheduled at inconvenient times and because the material was available online.
She said the board canceled its contract with CDS because it was unneeded and was too expensive and that the co-op’s policies required two board members to attend one of CDS’s policy conferences every year. “The contract was more than $10,000, and it was flat rate,” Wheeler said. “They were consulting on how to understand policy governance. I have a problem with having to have a consulting group explain policies.”
It looks like the bitterness at the co-op won’t end any time soon. During December’s board meeting, board member Greg Gould expressed his opinion about the situation.
“Fear is driving the decision-making process,” Gould said. “We need to find a way of communicating with each other. Fear is making us crazy.”
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