Tension at Seward Co-op’s May board meeting arose between board members and co-op owners ultimately leaving some owners feeling frustrated and uninformed. What began with a conversation about the recent firing of the board’s employee representative, ended with board members going into a closed-door executive session and owners feeling unsatisfied.

The board is run using the Policy Governance method. On the Seward website is a brief description of this method and a link to a website that further explains Policy Governance. The linked website explains that it is necessary for boards to “speak with one voice.” “Dissent is expressed during the discussion preceding a vote” and decisions “are never to be undermined.”

The board has made a point of staying consistent with their preset agenda, so new topics that owners bring up at meetings are often disregarded. Co-op owner Terry Hokenson explained that a meeting mediator will frequently tell owners that meetings aren’t set up for them to ask questions but rather for the board members to discuss.

Inability to communicate with board members and the board’s lack of transparency are concerns that have been voiced by owners. Multiple owners present at May’s meeting said they felt as if their questions were overlooked and that the flow of information from board members to co-op owners was stifled.

Agendas are determined two weeks in advance, and the board will consider including topics that are proposed before the agenda setting meeting, Board President Mary Alice Smalls wrote in an email exchange. It should be noted that Smalls’ responses are on behalf of the Seward Co-op Board of Directors as a whole. Individual board member contact information is not available, and all questions or proposed topics must be emailed to the board through its singular email.

Board members will vote on issues that have not previously been discussed, Hokenson said. “The board members are sent materials before board meetings and then they communicate by email and make decisions, so when they get to the board meeting they just vote.”

These materials consist of board information packets that are not available to owners, and the information is referenced with little context, making it difficult for owners to understand and follow board discussions. When asked why the information packets and budget information is not available to owners, Smalls responded by explaining the availability of board meeting minutes. Minutes are available after approval at the following meeting. In addition, Smalls wrote that, “This is an appropriate policy because some of the board’s work involves proprietary and confidential matters that may damage the co-op or individuals if made broadly public.” The board has agreed to owner’s request to see the agenda in advance and the June agenda has been posted prior to the meeting. Previously, agendas were not available prior to meetings.

Since the beginning of this year there has been an increase in attendance at the board meetings, said co-op employee and owner Sharri Nurein, who has attended every meeting this year. May’s meeting had approximately 15 owners, out of the over 19,000 co-op owners, in attendance. There was discussion of the member engagement budget in last month’s meeting, and although there has been an apparent increase in attendance, only 10 percent of this budget is being used, according to notes obtained from an attendee of the meeting.

Nurien also noted an increase in closed-door executive sessions and shorter meetings. “The past couple meetings have been very short, they’ve gone into executive sessions more,” an employee owner, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

The increased attendance may be due to the prolonged union negotiations, Hokenson said. “There is a growing number of people that are starting to wonder what is going on with these union negotiations. They’re going on and on and on,” Hokenson said. Owners aren’t getting any news or information, he added.

Greg Lee, the designated employee director (DED) of the board, was not present at May’s board meeting. This position is held for a co-op employee. An owner in attendance asked the board about his absence, according to the notes obtained. The board said that Lee had been let go from his job at the co-op and consequently let go from the DED position. Owners felt the board’s plan for replacing Lee was unclear and the conversation was cut short as the board attempted to follow its predetermined agenda. Multiple owners who were interviewed said they were concerned with the lack of employee representation on the board.

Now, a few weeks after the meeting, the board’s plan is clear. “Seward Co-op’s Board of Directors is currently planning the annual Board of Directors Election that will conclude October 30, 2018. The DED position will be on that ballot,” wrote Smalls.

Since the General Manager of Seward Co-op Sean Doyle is the only employee that reports to the board directly he attends the board meetings as well. This makes it difficult for employee owners to voice their concerns. “I feel like his presence at the meetings might pose a problem for employees who want to show up to the meetings and speak their minds,” Nurein said.

“There’s really no way of talking through things with board members,” said the anonymous employee owner.

Note: The Editor of Workday Minnesota, Filiberto Nolasco Gomez, is also currently a board memberr of the Seward Co-op.

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