Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Something Wicked This Way Comes: The "Coop" Blues Strike Again

I know I said I wouldn’t write any more about the Honest Weight Corporation but the story I want to tell here is too good not to share and sadly says volumes about what has become of the Honest Weight Coop.

A bit of backstory to begin with: I really had not thought about running for the Board at Honest Weight and really didn’t want to do it. I really don't have the Mr. Bourgeois Congeniality temperament for it and hopefully never will. I treasure honesty and forthrightness. Thank you liberal arts education. The promptings of several individuals who said I should run for the Board made me change my mind, however. So did the fact, or so one Board member said, that only three people had applied to run for the Board in April. Given all this I decided to enter the World Board Federation ring. I did an application. I gave it to a Board member. Eventually it found its way to a member of the Board nominations committee.

It was not as simple as this, of course. It never is in a modern bureaucratic setting. Erin Shaw, a member of the Board nominations committee received my application. Erin apparently contacted the member coordinator, Morgaen Hansen,who apparently told Erin I was not a member, an assertion I dispute given that I had not received a refund of my share. Morgaen and then Erin wrote me back saying I couldn’t run since I was not a member. Erin wrote that I had to have my membership in order by the 31st of March in order to run for the Board.

I did as she asked. But lo and behold I got called into the hall of the powers that be later that night and told that golly gee a misunderstanding had occurred. The application date for Board applications had not been extended as Erin and another board member, Ned Depew, thought, they told me, so no I couldn’t run for the Board. Whether these two Board members, William Frye and Roman Kuchera, had the ability to tell me this on their own without consulting the rest of the Board save perhaps Leif Hartman, an unelected member of the Board (ain't that democracy?) who was hanging at the Corpop tonight, is a question that perhaps should be asked. So must the question of whether Frye and Kuchera were acting on their own or at the behest of others. And if they were acting without full Board approval is that allowed under the by-laws? Speaking of that last question, one knowledgable source told me that what happened in my case was probably not covered by the by-laws.

After this friendly little tête-à-tête Kuchera signed off on my application and even asked me whether I still lived in New York. And no, I said, I had not moved to another state or country in the two or three weeks since I resigned from the Corpop and requested a return of my share payment. Ah, the joys of bureaucracy speak and bureaucracy do. Then Frye and Kuchera left but not without taking my Board application packet. Apparently to them the issue had been decided. They seem to have decreed that the only good contradiction was no contradiction at all. And verily the contradiction (at least two Board members thought the deadline for Board member applications had been extended) disappeared just like a character in the Master and Margarita.

Relevant Primary Source Material With Commentary
1. As a historical and empirical service I post in full the email I was sent by Erin Shaw. It is dated 29 March two days after the supposed original deadline and one day after I handed it. I quote:

I am copying Karen Roth, chair of the nominating committee on this email.

I wanted to confirm that I have received your application as a Board candidate, however, at this time you are not currently a member of the Honest Weight Food Co-op. In order to run you must be a member in good standing no later than March 31, 2015. I will hold off posting your application until I have confirmation that your status has changed.

Please reach out to Karen or myself with any questions.

Thank you,

2. Email from Karen Roth sent on 1 April 2015. First, Roth notes that mistakes were made. I assume, given the context, that she means the mistaken impression of some Board members that the deadline for Board applications was extended. Second, note that Roth is willing to accept my "late" application given this confusion. Finally, note that the greater informality of the fist letter is gone.
"Hi Ron,
I am sorry that this situation occurred. Governance is, at its core, a human endeavor and errors do occur.

Since your communication is the only information I have regarding the situation I am basing my response on it. There was some discussion of extending the application deadline and if you submitted your application based on that information I am sure we could accept your application.

Please forgive me if you know the following information. I include it for clarification. The question of eligibility is based on the definition of shareholder vs. member. A member of the Honest Weight is defined in our by-laws as a person who currently does member labor and this definition can change if you have not worked recently. If you do not have any working hours banked then your, in fact, not eligible to run for the board or vote at membership meetings despite holding a share in the co-op.

That said, I am a little confused by your e-mail. It seems to say that you filled out paperwork to get your share back indicating that you chose not even to be a shareholder. Why then would you seek a seat on the board of Directors?

Karen Roth, Nominations committee"

3. Roth's follow up email to me some ten hours or so later on 1 April. There are once again several things to note here. First, Roth no longer offers to accept my application. Second, Roth interestingly makes the mistake of assuming that Frye and Kuchera acted in the name of the Board. According to Board member Depew, they didn't act in his name. He wasn't even aware of the actions they took. Third, in the ten or more hours between her first email to me and the second one can only wonder whether Roth was contacted by any of the powers that be and told that accepting my Board application was out of the question. Is there, in other words, something else going on in the denial of my application for the Board. Is there a personal dislike of me among some of the powers that be because of some of the things that I have forthrightly and honestly said and written? If there is, of course, this once again proves that while bureaucracies claim to be formal organisations, and they are to some extent, they also are rent through with informal ideologically driven and emotionally driven actions, even among those who like to assert that they are simply enforcing the rules. Speaking of actions, I am not being "mean" in my analysis and interpretations here. I am simply being forthright, honest, and empirically accurate.
"Hi Ron,

Thanks for the clarification.

I see from your note that the board has taken on your issue and made a decision.

Because, as a committee member, I work in service to the board I will no longer engage with you on this matter.

Karen Roth, Nominations Committee"

4. This space is reserved for the official letter I requested from Kuchera and Frye detailing my case and explaining the ruling against my Board application in spite of confusion amongst Board members as to the application deadline, a confusion that impacted when I handed my application in. Since I have not received this letter yet let me note that if I don't receive such a letter this shows, once again, that while bureaucracies are, in part and in rhetoric, formal organisations with written rules or laws (the by-laws of Honest Weight), they also are rent through with informal oral practices that, intended or not, serve to place certain actions of the powers that be behind a veil of secrecy in an attempt, one presumes, to keep certain information from becoming general knowledge (such as, as one member put it, the "bullying" of Board member Ned Depew by four other Board members). I don't, by the way, expect to receive an official letter detailing the ruling against my applications since, as I noted, one knowledgable source said to me, what happened to me was not likely kosher under the existing corporate by-laws.

5. Interesting developments out of the blue within the last hour (2:30 and after, 2 April). I received this reply from William Frye when I asked for an official letter about the actions he and Roman Kuchera took on my Board application on Tuesday. Fascinating. I am not sure what to make of this./

Under the circumstances, I have made no such decision. I voiced my opinion. The issue will be presented to the whole board for a decision next Tuesday evening.


Bill Frye

I replied:

Didn't realize that and didn't recall either you or Roman making this clear.


William wrote back:
You are probably right. It was only later, on considering the situation, that I thought it would be the proper course to take.


6. The letter I sent to the Board:
I was told by one Board member that the period for accepting Board member applications had been extended. I was informed by another Board member that the only problem with my application accepted on the 29th of March, a day after I submitted it, was that I was not a member of the Coop and that I had to have my membership in order by 31 March. Given this the only rational, right, and honourable thing for the Board to do is to allow me, Ronald Helfrich Jnr., and anyone who had the same things happen to them, to stand for the Board.

Analytical Conclusions:
Thanks to years of observation the following picture emerges of Honest Weight. Honest Weight is a corporate bureaucracy, an organisation characterised by a hierarchical structure with a differential reward system and inequalities of power. Honest Weight claims to be a democracy, though how the powers that be slice and dice that term is unclear. It only partially is. It claims to be transparent. It only partially is. It claims to be member run. It only partially is. It is a bureaucracy where simple human fairness seems often to be trumped by pharisaical and scribal technicalities. In all of this Honest Weight is hardly exceptional. For an institution that began life as a countercultural attempt to be exceptional, to be different from the mainstream, that is in itself absolutely fascinating if not surprising to the theoretically and empirically inclined and deserving of further analysis.

None of what took place at Honest Weight Food Corporation the last couple of days, by the way, surprises me. It would have surprised me if it hadn't occurred. In closing let me just say that I hope I have brought a little transparency to what really happens behind the curtain at Honest Weight and I hope I have contributed to the literature on how bureaucracies claim to function (the formal public face dimension) and how they really function (the informal behind the curtain dimension, aka, the reality behind the liberal bourgeois façade). Finally, I hope this essay speaks to members out there who are trying to decide on who they should and who they should not vote for at the next Board election in April particularly those members who remember what a coop really is. I intend to vote for Daniel. I intend to vote against any current members of the Board running yet again particularly Leif Hartmark. I intend not to vote for anyone else, I find the other candidates too corporate in mentality or too close to the powers that be and as a result unable to act as a check and balance on the management team and that, dear readers, is a real rather than a perceived conflict of interest.

One last thing, I want to thank Honest Weight and particularly its elites for giving me so much to write about. I really like it when the muse comes upon me.

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