Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Who Moved My Board Directors?

It's really sad when even your local co-op Board Directors feel they have to act like politicians, and engage in spin and misdirection, rather than straight talk and transparency.

But apparently that is the case with Weaver Street Market Co-operative, where I am an active worker-owner.

In our latest monthly store newsletter, our Board Directors have devoted to themselves a whole page, in which they boast that they are directly accountable to workers and owners, and intimately interact with them to understand their values and vision.

This will come as some surprise to those of us who have seen this self-same Board, in the past three years, engage in a massive re-structuring of our co-op ($12 million expansion; completely re-written By-laws; Discounts to Dividends) - all without consulting workers or owners in any appreciable fashion.

For those of us who have paid attention to the workings of our allegedly accountable Board these past few years, it is perfectly clear that the Board regards itself as accountable only to itself and to the corporate office, from which it regularly takes its lead.

So it is that I find myself once again writing to the Board to ask them why they don't expend more effort actually complying with our Mission Statement and the co-operative values to which we are all supposed to adhere, and less time producing marketing literature that pretends that we do:

"Dear Dave [unelected Board Chair] and Board,

I applaud the fact that the February Store Newsletter contains information about the Board of Directors. However, the manner in which it is presented is disingenuous at best, and dishonest at worst.

I understand you want greater linkage and interaction with your owners and workers. So do we all. But, you do not achieve that simply by saying it's what you do (when you don't), nor by pretending that there is linkage.

1) Perhaps in the next Store Newsletter you would care to expand on precisely how the Board achieves its stated responsibility of "interacting with the owners - to understand their values and vision."

By not allowing them to vote on anything, nor present motions at Annual Meetings? By not allowing them to put items on the agenda of Board meetings? Through discussion groups? Through an online forum? Through the now non-existent Worker-Owner Program? How exactly?

2) Perhaps that Newsletter could also expand on precisely how the Board "is directly accountable to the consumer and worker owners for the activities and accomplishments of the co-operative."

The Board never meets with those consumer and worker-owners. Save for the Annual Meeting. Which worker-owners are not released to attend. Where there is little by way of accountability through voting on the Annual Report, say.

Accountability is not a euphemism for window-dressing. It means the Board presenting itself on a regular basis to its owners for acceptance or rejection of what it is doing.

And as I have already pointed out, Fairbairn (upon whom the Board seems to be placing such reliance this year) makes it clear that acceptance or rejection (if it is to be defined properly as accountability, linkage or interaction) needs to be ongoing, not just the once-a-year vote on a couple of Board members.

3) I am disappointed at the sleight of hand that seeks to present appointed members of the Board on an equal footing with those who stood in election.

Perhaps in future when you describe the Board members, you could indicate which are on the Board by way of election and which by way of appointment?

The Board Chair sits on the Board not because he represents Consumer-Owners, but because he was appointed.

The General Manager sits on the Board not because he represents Worker-Owners, but because he is General Manager.

It is offensive to those who take the opportunity to vote and who feel, with good cause, that there is a lack of democratic representation and accountability in our co-operative.

You do not make up for that deficiency with clever marketing. You make up for it by properly understanding co-operative values, Carver and Fairbairn, and then implementing what they stand for.

I look forward to a better understanding of Fairbairn as the year progresses, greater real linkage with your owners and workers, and a tad less of the political spin.

All the best,