Editor’s Note: Benjamin Bartley is the Value Chain Specialist at the Montañita Co-op. We publish this essay, which represents the sole views of the author and not necessarily those of La Montañita or edible Santa Fe, with the hope that it may spur serious and thoughtful debate surrounding this important local food issue.

2016 has been a tumultuous year for politics.  While roughly half of the voters in our national elections are elated, even more are in shock, asking themselves how we got here and who we are as a country.  All the while, there’s been a similarly contentious schism growing right here in New Mexico, within one of the largest, longest standing, cooperative food markets in the country. La Montañita Co-op is in the midst of a political rift, primarily over the makeup and reach of its governing body.

That there’s a division among La Montañita’s membership is not the cause for concern; unlike our national election, both sides in the Co-op’s debate are broadly guided by progressive values.  What’s troubling is the means by which the “Take Back the Co-op” (TBTC) group is seeking change—they are pushing to impeach dissenting Board Members, to stack the governing body with their own supporters, and to return to an earlier form of board governance that will grant them control over day-to-day operations of the Co-op.

When a progressive organization splits into factions, everybody loses.  This lesson seems lost on the TBTC organizers, who continue to advance their efforts, despite (or in spite) of their core campaign issue—surrounding conventional produce—being resolved by the Co-op leadership whom they are seeking to remove.

To be sure, democracy is alive and well at La Montañita; the Co-op membership has always had control over the organization.  Moreover, there are clear alternatives to the narrative and proposals put forth by TBTC for addressing member-owner concerns and being responsive to their interests.

In our current political climate, it is necessary more than ever to “Save Our Co-op” and work together to strengthen La Montañita, rather than “Taking it Back” and driving membership further apart.

The Silent Majority?

La Montañita’s political turmoil originated in early 2016 when the TBTC officially formed, largely in response to three developments at the Co-op.  The first was the introduction of select conventional produce at the stores, which was problematic and confusing for some member-owners.  Following this development were allegations of retaliation by management towards Co-op staff who opposed the conventional produce.  And for those member-owners and staff who went to Board meetings to voice their concerns, many left feeling that their complaints were falling on deaf ears.

Frustrated with what they perceived to be a distant, disinterested Board, a core group of those concerned created TBTC to give voice to these issues.

In short order, however, TBTC organizers widened their platform well beyond these three issues, developing a concerning (if conspiratorial) narrative that would make a reporter salivate—the uncovering of a corrupt consultancy group guilty of brainwashing co-op Boards across the country (including La Montañita’s); collusion between a multinational corporation and a co-op of co-ops in order to push certain products into member-owned stores; and a concerted effort by all three parties to either systematically close uncooperative co-ops, or subject them to their corporate will.

Say it ain’t so! (It’s not).

Thus, what began as a group of stakeholders with specific concerns soon snowballed into a movement fueled by false claims of a national conspiracy.  Unbeknownst to many TBTC supporters, too, was the group’s full agenda, which included the closure of La Montañita’s Westside store, the firing of its General Manager, a review of La Montañita senior staff, the negation of purchasing contracts negotiated with 150 other cooperatives for competitive pricing, and the return to an earlier form of Board governance in which the Board’s nine member, volunteer body could override senior management and influence day-to-day operations of the business.

Fast-forward to November, and the group’s narrative can be deemed a success—it was, after all, compelling enough to award all four seats in this year’s Board election to TBTC-sponsored candidates.

The group’s political ambitions do not end there, however.  Through an antiquated bylaw, TBTC is seeking to solicit enough member-owner signatures to call a “Special Meeting” for later this winter, during which TBTC hopes to recall the remaining five Board Members and stack the governing body with its own.

Should TBTC succeed in replacing the governance structure of La Montañita’s Board, they will have unchecked power to push through their platform, subjecting the over 16,000 member-owned business to the personalities of nine individuals.

If fully implemented, the TBTC agenda will also disrupt the Co-op, potentially putting it at financial risk.  This risk does not end with the Co-op or its employees either; the hundreds of local farmers, ranchers, and food producers who depend on La Montañita’s stores and Cooperative Distribution Center will suffer from any diminishment to La Montañita, its retail stores, or warehouse.

“Take Back the Co-op,” or, “Make the Co-op Great Again?”

As the name suggests, TBTC is a coalition of La Montañita member-owners and staff who oppose recent changes at the Co-op, consider those developments contrary to the Co-op’s values, and disagree with how those changes were decided upon.  TBTC supporters also share a general sense of eroding democratic control over the organization.

The TBTC platform can be pieced together from their website, where you’ll be invited to “Follow the Money” and learn about the “Corporate Takeover” of La Montañita (as well as other co-ops across the country).

What you will not find on the TBTC website is any recognition that the assumptions underlying their platform are just that—assumptions.  Also missing are the numerous ways in which these assumptions have been publicly addressed and found to be facts used out of context, half-truths, or completely inaccurate.  Despite this, these assertions remain in the TBTC narrative.

Notably lacking from the group’s website are references to their campaigning strategy, which often relied on selective messaging when soliciting signatures for the TBTC Special Meeting petition.  During a September TBTC meeting, for example, organizers encouraged their supporters to simply describe their petition as a “vote for democracy,” leaving out key details of the group’s platform.

As with any effective campaign, finding a succinct message that resonates with your base is key.  To the credit of TBTC, advocating for the return of democratic control and describing their work as a “vote for democracy” makes for a compelling case. In practice, however, their petition and the Special Meeting itself represents neither of these things.  It is a process that allows a small group of stakeholders to both push their candidates into power and expand their influence over the Co-op.

Repeal and Replace?

For much of its forty-year history, La Montañita operated a single food market.  The Co-op began with three hundred member-owners, and its economic impact in the New Mexico economy was modest for several decades.  As such, its Board was more actively involved with the management of the business.

This type of board governance was more common during the heyday of cooperatives in the 1970s.  Many co-ops have since closed, however, and this type of board governance was frequently a source of volatility; should you ask La Montañita staff who were employed at the Co-op when its Board governed this way, you will likely hear how chaotic, personality-driven, and potentially destructive that model can be (at its worst, La Montañita was on the brink of closure).  With more than $41,000,000 in annual sales, it is impractical for La Montañita to revert to previous governance structures, delegating operational business responsibilities to a volunteer Board.

Thus, it was with great relief when La Montañita assumed “Policy Governance” in 2001.  The growth of the Co-op over the past fifteen years (increasing from one to six stores, and launching one of the nation’s most successful food hubs) is a testament to the success of its current governance structure.

In short, Policy Governance narrows the responsibilities of the Board to three main tasks:

1.) hiring a General Manager to carry out business operations,

2.) interpreting how the Co-op’s “Ends” or values should be manifested in business decisions, and

3.) holding the General Manager accountable for achieving those Ends.

As with any form of governance, La Montañita’s version of Policy Governance has its flaws.  One of these flaws is the Board’s “One Voice” policy and the current Board’s understanding of this practice, which restricts Board Members from communicating as individuals during meetings on specific issues raised by membership.

This policy was originally adopted to allow Board Members to voice their opinions during Board debates, although it also directed them to speak publicly as a united body once a vote had been taken and a decision made.  This latter practice caused many of the original TBTC supporters to feel that their concerns were not being heard or incorporated into the Board’s decision-making, exacerbating their frustration and preventing them from getting the answers they were seeking at Board Meetings.

The rift within La Montañita this past year is evidence that the Board’s “One Voice” policy has proven to be more of a barrier to engagement than an aid to Board functions.  It is clear that alternative means for communicating during Board Meetings should be adopted.  Despite what TBTC claims, however, abandoning Policy Governance is not necessary to achieve better engagement and Board transparency; Policy Governance is worth keeping at the Co-op, and is amenable to improvement.

The TBTC diagnosis of Policy Governance as the root cause for all of the Co-op’s ills is strategic; it creates a scapegoat that needs repealing and replacing.

Draining the Swamp?

According to TBTC, the group intends to do much more than impeach the Board and replace Policy Governance.  Their petition also promises to:

1.) fire the General Manager;

2.) “end dealings” with CDS Consulting Cooperative, an employee-owned co-op that has long served co-op’s across the nation;

3.) reassess La Montañita’s affiliation with National Cooperative Grocers, a co-op of 150 food retail co-ops, of which La Montañita is a core member and a founding organization;

4.) find alternatives to UNFI, the largest natural foods distributor in the country, through which La Montañita procures much of its packaged goods; and

5.) remove the limited merchandizing of conventionally-grown produce that provides a lower price point on select fruits and vegetables for low-income customers, expanding their access to healthy food and their participation in the cooperative economy.

Unfortunately, many Members were unaware of the food-access rationale behind the conventional produce initiative, as well as the Co-op’s broader strategy to both widen our membership and the communities we serve.  Nevertheless, the marketing of fifteen conventional produce items at La Montañita stores is what drove a lot of “single issue voters” to sign the TBTC petition.

Fast-forward to December 2016, and Co-op leadership has decided to phase out these conventional fruits and vegetables (all without a TBTC-dominated board, or a change to the Co-op’s governing structure).  While this phase out is a minor setback to La Montañita’s food-access efforts, it was a business decision in large part informed by membership’s opposition to this development.

The question remains, then, whether the member-owners who supported the TBTC petition on this specific issue are still interested in seeing the entirety of the TBTC platform come to bear.

“A Voice for the Working Class?”

Another TBTC campaign promise was to “Review Senior Leadership.”  Underpinning this promise is the premise of an unconcerned or ineffective Human Resources department at the Co-op, supported by anecdotal claims of staff mistreatment and retaliation by La Montañita senior management.

Their allegation presumes guilt, without consideration for the systems that already exist to address employee grievances.  As one employee Board Member proposed at the November Board Meeting, a third party audit of La Montañita’s employment practices should be conducted, if only to illustrate the adherence to (or exceeding of) best practices by La Montañita’s Human Resources department.  This proposal passed, and will be carried out.

To be certain, issues relating to worker treatment are highly sensitive, and should be taken with the greatest care.  To this end, all labor claims at the Co-op (including those used in the TBTC narrative) are registered, investigated, and handled appropriately.  In this author’s experience as both an active member-owner and Co-op employee, there is no reason to believe that this is not the daily practice of La Montañita’s Human Resources team.

The leveraging of unsubstantiated worker claims for political currency, however, should be recognized for what it is.  Moreover, this type of divisive campaigning by TBTC only serves to drive those concerned farther apart.

“Save Our Co-op,” or, “Stronger Together”

Properly-functioning democracies require diversity among its leadership.  When the balance is entirely in one group’s advantage, there are no opportunities for competing views to challenge each other.  This kind of constructive challenging is what ultimately results in policy and decision-making that serves the majority.

In an effort to defend this type of Board, democracy, and governance at La Montañita, consider saving our cooperative in lieu of taking it back.

We, as member-owners and staff, still have a say in the direction and values of the Co-op; our democratic control never left.  If enough of us are engaged and continue to hold both the Board and the TBTC group accountable, then there is no need for their Special Meeting petition or the changes proposed therein.

To support a thriving future for La Montañita, it is imperative that member-owners and the larger community educate themselves on the issues involved.  This is especially true, should TBTC present their petition and force a Special Meeting to take over the Board and advance their agenda.

We still have the opportunity to work together, build a strong cooperative, and protect the interests of the majority of member-owners.

If only we had this type of opportunity in our national elections.

To stay informed about the yet-to-be scheduled Special Meeting and for more information on how to get involved, please contact saveourcoop.lamontanita@gmail.com

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