Food Co-op Bitter to the Core
David Rohde, The New York Times, Jan. 26, 1997. Photo by Ruby Washington.

By the time the special meeting of the Park Slope Food Co-operative ends on Tuesday night, the victors may declare the outcome democracy and the vanquished may deride it as mob rule.

A bitter struggle for control is threatening to tear apart the 5,200-member group, a 23-year-old Park Slope institution with a reputation for cheap food and friendliness, not vitriol and legal wrangling.

On the surface, the dispute is simply whether the co-op should study buying the building next door to double its size. But at its core, three of the six board members are engaged in a power struggle with the co-op's six full-time coordinators. In distinctly un-Park-Slope-like tones, the coordinators have been called "corrupt" and the board members "fascists."

"Paul's wife is worried about whether someone's going to have a gun," said Stewart Martin, a board member who is challenging the coordinators with two fellow board dissenters, Paul Sheridan and Chandra Hauptman. "Just because it's a food co-op doesn't mean there isn't some kind of wacko running around."

Tensions have been rising between the two groups for the last year. The three dissenting board members contend that the coordinators run the co-op with no oversight and pack the small monthly meetings where critical decisions are made with the 50 to 75 people who show up. The coordinators and two of the remaining board members deny packing meetings and contend that the three dissenters are ignoring the will of the majority.

"You're dealing with three people who were unable to get what they wanted and are now acting like petulant little children," said Robert Weisburd, a board member who supports the coordinators. "If you don't like it, change it, but do it democratically."

At the March meeting, co-op members rejected a proposal to let the full membership vote to on a plan to change the way the co-op is governed. The three opposing members contend that the co-op, which now does $8 million a year in business, lacks a mission statement, strict financial checks and balances, and a long-term planning committee.

The coordinators deny packing the March meeting and say the problem was with the proposed referendum. "If their ideas were right, maybe people would have voted for them," said Mr. Weisburd, one of the co-op's 10 founders. "The coordinators are 6 people, not 50 people."

At the October meeting, the dispute flared again. Co-op members voted 55-24 to create a committee to study the purchase of the Cline's Rug Cleaning building next door. The three dissenting members voted to reject the plan, breaking the tradition of the board's abiding by decisions at the monthly meeting. The plan failed on a 3-to-2 vote, with one member absent.

In just over a week, co-op members collected more than 1,000 signatures, more than twice the number needed to call the special meeting, which will be held at 7:30 PM Tuesday in the Garfield Temple ballroom. Eric Schneider, one of the co-op members who put together the petition, hopes for a compromise. But the three dissenters on the board have already obtained a legal opinion stating that they do not have to abide by the membership's vote on Tuesday.

"Things need to be cleared up," said Mr. Schneider, who hopes to mediate. "I wish I could harness the energy of the coordinators and the board members. It's a power struggle that just doesn't need to be."

Compromise Recipe at Feuding Food Co-op
David Rohde, The New York Times, Feb. 2, 1997. Photo by Steve Hart.

Debate grew heated at times, but a meeting of the Park Slope Food Co-operative last week was dominated by a mood members say has been missing for months: conciliation.

At its start, the first-ever membership meeting had the potential to split the 5,200-member co-operative, but it ended in a compromise over a proposal to consider expanding the co-op. In a 202-to-41 vote, the membership voted to establish a committee to research the expansion, while a second committee looks into the development of a mission statement.

The compromise was supported by the three board members who set off a firestorm of protest in October by voting against a study on expanding into the building next door.

"This was an excellent meeting," said Chandra Hauptman, one of the three board members. "This was our whole purpose. This issue needed to be discussed by a broader segment of the population."

Ms. Hauptman and two other board members, Paul Sheridan and Stewart Martin, have called for a wide-ranging review of the co-op's growth, its system of checks and balances, and how it is governed. They had obtained a lawyer's opinion that they were not legally bound to abide by any decisions made by the co-operative's members.

The initial concession came from the co-op's six general coordinators. They offered to change the wording of the original proposal to include the study of other sites besides the building next door, which houses a rug-cleaning business. The directors also accepted an amendment from a member, Eric Rochow, to form a second committee to develop a vision statement, although it was not immediately clear what that statement would address.

But the underlying issue that has caused much of the tension remains unresolved - how the co-op is to be governed. Ms. Hauptman, Mr. Sheridan, and Mr. Martin oppose the co-op's current practice of deciding crucial issues at the monthly general membership meetings, which typically have attracted only 50 to 75 people.

Ms. Hauptman and Mr. Martin said they support a proposal to create a committee that, with the help of an outside mediator, would study the governance issue. Mr. Sheridan had no comment.

Two other board members and the co-op's general coordinators defended the current procedure. They argue that the monthly meetings allow those voting to have extensive knowledge of each issue and debate the merits and drawbacks, something that may not be possible with a new form of decision making.

The election of new members to serve on the two new committees and the potentially contentious governance issue are to be taken up at a co-op meeting on Feb. 25.

Eric Schneider, a member who gathered a 1,000-signature petition calling for Tuesday's unprecedented meeting, was confident that the goodwill would continue.

"The meeting exceeded my expectations," he said. "Personally, I feel exhilarated."

Back to the Special Meeting! (You don't really want to go back, do you?)