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Co-op Detente

Conflict cools at Boise Co-op board meeting

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A sizable crowd lingered outside St. John's Parish Hall Jan. 24, anxiously awaiting the start of a Boise Co-op meeting called by recently fired manager Ken Kavanagh. Words like "rumors," "answers" and "innuendo" hung thick in the evening air. But once the crowd pushed through the church's double doors and settled into the basement's limited chairs, co-op board member David Eberle made something very clear: "This is a board meeting not a member meeting."

Though Kavanagh originally hoped for a member vote Monday night to reverse the board's contentious decision to fire him, the board insisted that the meeting conflicted with co-op bylaws and, therefore, no vote would be allowed. The objective of the meeting, Eberle noted, was to update members on the current state of the co-op and allow them to voice concerns about the grocery store's future without Kavanagh.

"Gary Lyons was appointed ... to help guide the co-op through the transition until we can complete a new management structure for the co-op ... it was a decision that we did not take lightly," said Eberle.

Kavanagh, who was in a conference with lawyers and two of the six co-op board members during the first part of the meeting, entered the room to issue a statement.

"We came to a monetary agreement," said Kavanagh. "I don't necessarily understand the 'new direction' of the co-op. I didn't think there was anything wrong with the old direction. I want to thank everyone who has supported me. Somebody compared it to being at your own funeral."

Pat Haas, acting chair of the co-op board, also gave a statement.

"We and Ken have entered into an agreement that basically settles our differences and legal disputes and the details of that agreement are, of course, confidential ... We can say that there will be a change of leadership going forward and that Ken has agreed not to contest that decision ... the recent decisions about the change of leadership ... had absolutely nothing to do with Ken's DUI in 2009 or the recent probation violations."

Interim co-op manager Lyons met with co-op employees in the weeks after Kavanagh's termination and has assessed a number of areas where the store needs improvement.

"I have learned that we lack basic business controls. For example, we lack clear job descriptions, goal setting and performance evaluations. As a result we have employees that are confused, scared and working in an environment where misconceptions, rumors and gossip take place," said Lyons.

He continued: "Customer feedback is clear ... there are too many products out of stock, our pricing policies need to be reviewed, our store is crowded--which is a good thing--and the parking lot seems to be crowded all the time."

But lurking under the surface of Lyons' talk of improvement was the evening's elephant in the room: Whole Foods. Once the floor opened to members, most voiced concerns that the natural foods chain will threaten the co-op when it opens a Boise location if changes aren't made quickly.

"You're going to get competition soon, and it's coming in other places besides Whole Foods," said Lois Morgan, a co-op member since 1982. "I want to support you. I want to give my money to you. I want to eat healthily, so I need to feel some loyalty to you. I get more friendliness at Fred Meyer sometimes than I do at the co-op."

Josie Erskine, co-owner of Peaceful Belly Farms, also uttered fears about the future.

"No one is going to support Peaceful Belly the way that the co-op has. Whole Foods won't. Fred Meyer won't. Walmart won't," said Erskine. "I love the co-op and really truly hope it does stay loyal to the small farmers because we're dependent upon them."

Lyons tried to assuage concerns about competition from Whole Foods by illuminating the co-op's relative strengths.

"We don't want to look like Whole Foods, and we don't want to smell like Whole Foods. We will compete on the values, on [our] abilities or uniqueness or quirkiness--whatever you want to call it," said Lyons.

Many at the meeting also wanted to proclaim their support for Kavanagh. One member called the "public lambasting" of Kavanagh's character in the blogosphere "criminal and offensive to me as a human being," while musician and former co-op employee Brett Netson expressed his disgust with the way Kavanagh was fired.

"This is just shameful, regardless of what Ken did or didn't do ... I just want the employees that are here to keep that in mind. What is the board of directors going to do the next time your employment needs to be terminated? I was fired from the co-op for real reasons. I left the keys in front door," said Netson, to much laughter. "I'm not shopping at the co-op. I'm done."

But impassioned speeches aside, Christine King, a co-op member for 20 years, seemed to sum up the meeting most eloquently.

"I considered Ken a friend, but when I knew Whole Foods was coming, I knew things were going to change ... If we want the co-op to be the co-op, we've got to change with it," she said.

The co-op board explained that it will continue to review managerial candidates but can't specify a date for when Kavanagh's successor will take the reins.

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