Note: Oneota Community Co-op Board President Lyle Luzum has e-mailed this statement to decorahnews.com in response to Friday's news story about the controversy over the board stating former Co-op Co-Manager Steve Mc Cargar should not be elected to the board because he should not be in a position to supervise the new General Manager:
"Dear Mr Scott,
While disagreements between members in an organization do make for good headlines, I find it interesting and saddening that issues within the Oneota Community Coop are treated like public policy disputes, with a reporter (and member-owner) publicly implying that a particular member sue the Board. A negative comparison was even made to the hospital board. I suspect some of this comes, not from malice, but from a misunderstanding, even among member-owners, of what OCC is and is not, and what is appropriately public discourse.
First, OCC is NOT a public entity of any sort. We are NOT a non-profit, public-service agency. As such, we receive NO public funds and the affairs of OCC are NOT public. We do NOT solicit donations to cover our expenses. We are NOT a non-profit fraternal organization. We are NOT a non-profit entity of any sort. Although our roots are there, we are NOT a private buying club. NOR are we a worker-cooperative.
We ARE a Member-owner Cooperative, existing under Iowa Code Section 499, just like farmer cooperatives or electric cooperatives. Like other Iowa cooperatives, we are a for-profit business, directed toward a purpose and owned by its members. We have a governance structure led by a volunteer Board of Directors, which acts as trustees of the member-owners' assets, directing those assets toward achieving, on behalf of the member-owners, the purpose of the cooperative. The affairs of a cooperative are the affairs of the member-owners, NOT the public.
Although member-owners each hold a membership and voting share, we are NOT a shareholder or publicly-held corporation designed as an investment vehicle. Excess profits, if they exist, are returned to the member-owners in relation to their patronage, not in relation to how many shares they own. Unlike a shareholder-based business, voting strength is not based on how much one has invested. Wealth is not the determiner of influence. Each member-owner has one vote on issues.
When OCC expanded over two years ago, we did it without public funds and did not ask for special tax treatment. We pay property tax, sales tax, and income tax. Our capital for expansion was raised through conventional means – primarily local bank loans and member-owner investment and loans. We exist in a highly competitive grocery environment, aiming to provide member-owners and non-members with access to quality natural, local, and organic foods. It is through this business service that we aim to achieve our purpose.
We have many reasons for having joined as member-owners of OCC, and we are not all the same. We like to think that our existence and success as a business makes Northeast Iowa a better place to live. Increasingly, we find that the larger community agrees that we an important part of the uniqueness and success of this area. Increasingly, even non-members cannot imagine Decorah without OCC.
To the extent that our goals align with those of the larger public interest, I can understand why people are interested in our internal affairs. But this alignment of interest is NOT the same as being a public or public-service entity. I repeat, the internal affairs of a co-op are the affairs of the member-owners. Frankly, I think it is inappropriate when a member who disagrees with something which is clearly a member-owner issue, chooses to make it into a public issue, even if that member has a public venue. This is a rare and unfortunate way to treat a local business.
However, since this was turned into a public topic I would like to add a bit of perspective. The implication was made recently that the Board was "instructing" people on the ballot, as if the ballot consisted of a letter telling people not to vote for someone, and a place to check off the vote. In fact, the ballot packet (typically, our only annual communication with all the members about member issues – this costs a lot) consists of: a letter from the Board announcing the annual member meeting and some information in context as we see it; the ballot (which includes ALL candidates in alphabetical order plus several bylaw change proposals, explained); full-page letters from EACH candidate explaining why they wish to serve on the Board; and a ballot return envelope designed to assure anonymity.
At a recent candidate forum, the implication was made that the Board was being secretive about why the non-nominated candidate was not nominated. We felt it was proper to explain why a long-term former manager was not nominated for the Board. In the interest of transparency, we felt we owed this explanation to the members in the form of one sentence. This is not an election in which each candidate is on their own to spend their money to persuade voters. We provided each candidate, whether board-nominated or petition-nominated, the only practical mechanism to get their message to all the member-owners – inside the ballot packet. This is not the practice of public entities which clearly separate any campaigning or advocacy from balloting procedures and dictate that those running for office shoulder the burden of getting their message out, nor do public entity boards nominate Director candidates. But this is standard practice for most member or shareholder entities – from Sierra Club, to Thrivent, to AT&T. Boards are expected to nominate candidates, propose changes, explain, and provide an honest mechanism for voting within their bylaws and governance policies.
Nevertheless, the Board has now chosen to remove any mention of the candidates from our letter. We have no interest in creating controversy. We leave that for others. We do not subscribe to the idea that any publicity is good publicity. Our interest is only to make it possible for OCC to reach its potential to make this a better place to live by providing a great store at the core of downtown Decorah that not only is financially successful, but achieves purposes that align with this community. In the end, like any other retail business, customers, both member-owners and non-members alike, are all we have – and all are welcome.
As it should be, member-owners, and only member-owners, should evaluate any issues we encounter while we go about our business."