Group says mounting petition drive to remove Central Co-op board members — UPDATES

With shared ownership and consensus-based decision making at its core, you might expect a cooperative-run business as large as Capitol Hill’s Central Co-op to be a drama-filled battlefield of personal conflicts. You know, like Survivor or Real World Seattle. The Co-op, standing at Madison and 16th Ave since its 1999 move from 12th Ave, instead, has been a remarkably stable entity for its decades on Capitol Hill. But there will be a different mood this weekend when a group of member-owners including some staff tells CHS it will begin a membership petition for the ouster of two co-op board members.

“People were scared, they were misinformed, and not enough people with knowledge felt they could come forward,” said Levi Stewart about what he says has been a long series of transgressions by Central’s elected board of trustees.

Stewart and members calling themselves Concerned Owners of Central Co-op are demanding the recall of two board trustees including the current president Kristina Kokonis and will mount the petition drive for support prior to the board’s February meeting.

It’s a rare moment of acrimony for the co-op which recently added new general manager Dan Arnett and underwent an overhaul of its market and brand. Kokonis has not responded to our request to speak with her while we were promised a statement from Arnett that we have not received.

The other board member targeted in the recall effort tells CHS she is disappointed about the energy being spent but supportive of owners exercising the “basic principle of cooperatively owned businesses.” Here’s board treasurer Claudia Kienholz

Democratic owner control is a basic principle of cooperatively owned businesses around the world, including Central Co-op, and I support the right of every owner to exercise this democracy.  I haven’t seen the actual petition you mention.  Personally, I’m very sad to see that this has diverted time and resources away from the critical strategic work we are just beginning.  

Removal of the two longest serving elected trustees would leave our eleven-member Board with seven trustees, only four elected by the ownership, and none having served longer than 16 months.  I’m committed to continuing my work to advance Central Co-op’s capacity to thrive in pursuit of our purpose.  I  believe that our owners will be better served if the current Board is able to continue the work we have in progress together throughout our terms. 

Stewart’s group has compiled a 19-point list of transgressions and improper conduct he says Kokonis and Kienholz are responsible for. They range from specific instances of misuse of funds to more general complaints. “Continuously demonstrate a lack of trust and respect for staff. Including personal and unprofessional attacks on individual staff people,” reads one.

So far, the board members have said their hands are tied. “The Board does not have a policy or process in place for removing a trustee, except through an unresolved attendance issue,” the response to the group reads following a discussion on the situation earlier this month. “A trustee must choose to resign.”

The elected board positions are not paid but those elected do receive a monthly stipend. Stewart is a paid Central Co-op employee and said he has been part of the market for more than three years.

Central Co-op is an independent grocery cooperative but is also open to non-members.

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33 thoughts on “Group says mounting petition drive to remove Central Co-op board members — UPDATES

  1. Huh, interesting to hear about this happening as I enjoy shopping at Central Co-op and it seems like a pretty well run store. I poked around the coop’s website, but I couldn’t find any other information such as what has happened at board meetings or anything else to get a different side of the story. Perhaps something is rotten in the state of the coop, and it isn’t just sprouted mung beans or expired kefir…

  2. This article tells me almost nothing about the nature of the dispute. Just that the is one. I hope you’ll follow up when you have some actual facts.

  3. Thanks for covering this, I too enjoy shopping at the coop. I will check out the tumblr page. If there are workers involved who support this I probably will too, they are one of the best things about shopping there.

  4. Joanna,
    I too find this disturbing. I can only think that if these board members were actually as involved and invested in our community as you are, that this recall would not need to happen. I appreciate your writing on school issues and can clearly see your concern for the community. “Concern for community” is one of the founding cooperative principles. Hopefully one day we can see you sitting on the Central Coop Board!

  5. There are also workers that don’t support this and think its just a bunch of managers and their friends that want to stir sh** up instead of working. I hope someone puts out some less biased information that offers a more complete picture so that our members aren’t misled.

  6. They may seem petty.However the acrimony has not been a rare moment or recent but has building up over several years.There is more detail on the tumblr site
    Ongoing unethical behavior somehow self-justified and rationalized,allowing the bullying of others who don’t agree and squandering thousands of dollars has had a very negative impact on the co-op over the last several years. It’s not a good feeling to go to work and wonder if you may be the next target or to feel powerless to stop it.

  7. Member since the mid-1980s.

    I read the tumblr account and most of the complaints sound legit for a coop. Perhaps in a different business settle, the complaints might seem trivial, but the standard of business is different for a coop. I do very much want to hear any counter-arguments, although some of the points do seem to be flatly factual, such as a person admitting to driving on coop business while under the influence and not being punished.

    Having worked for a corporation whose executives changed the culture drastically, I know that such can seriously and negatively affect a businesses. In a coop, refusal to explain behaviors is a basic culture challenge and cannot go unquestioned. The trustees in question must be transparent about what they did and did not do, and how monies were handled — and if they are found culpable, they should be replaced. Their positions are held by the good will of the members; they are not aristocrats above complaint.

  8. I have been a member for over 10 years and have known many people who have worked there, including the current crop that are circulating the petition. I will say that the items are legit, because I trust the individuals making the claims, have had interactions there that lend credence to the complaints, and am aware of some of the personnel changes recently that had to put a stop to some serious abuses from which the board turned a blind eye. There was a certain brand of sectarian leftists that worked there who harassed people relentlessly for years and the board harassed management every time they tried to do anything about it.

    These are long time employees who have put in years of service and have always been very hesitant to air complaints publicly. In my years of knowing them, they have always sought internal remedies. This board has been unresponsive to members who have also complained about some of the board member’s entitlement issues. Any organization that demands an 80 hours per month time commitment to qualify to run for a VOLUNTEER position on their board is clearly having problems.

    These members named in the complaint have done something; people don’t just go public and put their reputations out there for the hell of it, when they have no pattern of making public complaints. If these board members should step down for any reason, it is because of this inability to be true leaders and represent the entire membership, and not just portions of it that support their personal initiatives. If they were effective at this, a little incompetence could be tolerated.

  9. “…a staff director admitted to using drugs while operating a rented vehicle and driving other Co-op staff to a work-related conference…”

    So the rented vehicle must be the problem, because I often see the staff under the influence operating everything else in the store.

  10. @Coop Member, thanks for the compliment and thanks for checking out the tumblr page. If you have time Sunday, please stop by and I’d be more than happy to answer any questions you have.
    @Worker-Although I haven’t come across any workers who think it’s just a bunch of managers who want to stir sh** up (as you so eloquently put it), I imagine that if there are,they have made an active choice to ignore what’s in front of them and/or not participate in any coop board and committee level meetings. The only other workers I know who feel the way you do are friends with the board members in question and refuse to hold them accountable in spite of their grossly negligent behavior. I’d be more than willing to debate the facts with you. You know who I am, come find me. Until then, do some research.

  11. I love the idea of the co-op, but in practice, it does not work for me. I have had multiple negative interactions with staff there and it’s just not a pleasant place to shop. Luckily we’ve got plenty of other places to shop on the Hill.

  12. I went to the Central Coop Board Recall blog and read the three posts and seven comments posted as of this moment. While much remains unclear to me, it seems very clear that some people are feeling angry, frustrated and mistrustful.

    I have my own perspective on and opinions about the Co-op, as do we all. I’ve been a member for 20 years, I’ve served on the Board for 3 years (2005-2008) and I worked there as a cashier for 2 years (2009-2011 until being fired for tardiness – my bad).

    Change is part of life and so is conflict. How we deal with it is important. I wish our community had better practices in place for coping with disagreement and distrust, but I don’t agree (from what’s being presented in this article or on their blog) that there is enough evidence to support a recall of the two board members named. This campaign is evidence enough, however, to support the need for some conflict resolution at the store. If the Hutus and Tutsis can work it out, well, perhaps I’m exaggerating to say they’ve worked it out, but jeez let’s give it a shot, friends.

    Good luck to everyone and thanks for caring about the Co-op.

    A special welcome and the very best luck to new General Manager, Dan Arnett. May his intelligence and skillfulness be up for the challenge.

    Heather Crone

  13. Heather, I agree with with much of what you have said and I understand how you have empathy for Kristina as a former Board Member and fired employee. Things have gotten worse since you have been on the Board; the items on the Tumblr page all have backing documentation but nobody has all the facts-these folks aren’t working in a transparent manner. How many Boards Members have resigned since you left? How many General Managers? How are things better?

    it is your friends and former co-workers as well as member-owners who have brought forth this petition after trying to address these issues in a cooperative manner, both in general and “special” boards meetings. We have the support of some Board Trustees but it is important to us to include membership as well.

    I encourage you and anybody else interested in the co-op to come talk to us outside the co-op today.
    There will be people available to answer questions and collect signatures after 1pm.


  14. Hi everybody. Marcus the cashier and former this and that co-op worker making my comment..

    I think most workers on the floor are too busy working to notice most of this stuff,
    and I think the asst. managers and senior workers involved in this recall have a luxury not afforded to most of us.

    I see thick hypocrisy in the way people here view the work of each other.

    And all involved in this recall, I consider u my friends and have no doubt that u care about the co-op immensely. I see u as important parts of our community and people I can count on.

    However, I’m too busy handling what happens on the floor to give any kind of shit about the board.

    So if u wanna go after the board , that’s fine, but I am trying to make the floor a better place to work.

    And Heather Crone, I miss u immensely and I think I may be one of the last few people left who share in your vision of making the co-op a place where personal responsibility is valued.

  15. Fact free~
    For clarifying facts in direct response to the allegations you can go to:

    Please read and discern for yourself.
    Coop Owner/Member, Max Walsh 22920

  16. For clarifying information and direct responses to the allegations, folks can go to:
    Please read and discern for yourself.

    To address Allen (below)
    My relationship to the Board of Trustees is first as a Co-op owner of 20 years starting at Oly East Side, then Central Co-op at it’s old location on 12th and Denny, through Mad Market days and back around to present day… my secondary relationship, which I’m guessing you are more interested in, is that I am Kristina Kokonis’ partner.

    Allen, I am also curious, how would you describe your relationship to the board?

  17. All very interesting. While its nice to see some sort of reply, I can’t say it’s all very detailed. A lot of responses I consider very generic, some are very divisive on the boards behalf in an attempt to turn things back on Mgmt. (further proving their disrespect towards staff) and others are outright lies. I know because I am a worker and an invested member-owner. Its my opinion that I want respectful leadership/trustees that actually reach out to staff and invest in open dialog and creative problem solving when there is conflict instead of shutting people out. For too long our board has consisted of people that haven’t wanted active, direct, member involvement because they do not want to be held accountable by membership. Its easy to say you are following cooperative principles and procedures, its another to actually practice it. Without true transparency, openness and honesty our organization as a whole is only faking its ideals. I believe in the democratic process regardless of the outcome. I don’t believe our board acts with honesty, respect and integrity when it comes to its owners and their involvement. I believe the board could be great but don’t believe these two individuals are capable of that due to some of the actions taken by them, which as an owner I don’t believe we’re in the best interest of the Co-op and its stake holders. I’m curious Max as to what your relationship to the board is?

  18. I think everyone should take a deep breath. There are clearly two sides to this story. I have been a co-op owner for over 6 years and may be one of the few co-op owners who has sat through a board meeting with the current board. At one board meeting, I witnessed Kristina Kokonis trying very very hard to get all the board members to sign off on notes from previous meetings so they could be published. There were several board members in attendance who had not read previous meeting notes and would not sign off on meeting notes without having read them. They were unprepared. Further, there was a good deal of discussion about the concept of meetings closed to the public and how to handle them. ALL board members were in favor of the concept of closed meetings and were simply trying to work out the logistics of how to make them happen. Quite honestly, I was impressed with how Ms. Kokonis handled herself and the fractious members of the board. Seriously. It was like watching people bludgeon each other with parliamentary procedures and try to filibuster one another into submission when there was a disagreement about how to proceed. The co-op (and its board) work under a consensus-driven model. Kokonis tried to give everybody their chance to speak and to keep the meeting moving (including getting those damn meeting notes addressed). It appeared to me, she was doing everything she possibly could under the rules to get meeting business accomplished. Like another president I can think of, she has less real power than people are giving her credit for.

    Here’s some food for thought (pun intended). This is a co-op. It doesn’t appear to me that there has been any cooperation at all. It seems more like a coup. The petition is well-written and very “professional” sounding. What’s missing is any real evidence that the folks originating it have made a real effort to resolve their issues with the board. Certainly, none of them were in attendance at the last meeting I was at, sharing their concerns. As an owner, I want BOTH sides to sit down and work out their differences. I’m not in favor of breaking co-op rules to oust somebody or using co-op rules to circumvent having a productive conversation. Let’s at least try to act like we’re in this together.

    ps. I think Ms Kokonis has been board president for almost two years? Maybe more? If these folks were really concerned about the impact her termination from the market would have on her board service, wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to bring that up earlier? Feels like it’s been added to make her seem like a “shady” character. Meet her. Go to a meeting. See for yourself.

  19. Great to know! I too am a Co-op owner and worker but have no personal relationships with anyone on the board other than professional. The reason I asked was only because I was curious as to whether the responses from the link you posted were made strictly on your behalf, if you were speaking on the boards behalf or if it was an actual communication from the board itself, that’s all. No where did it clearly specify if it was a board response. Typically statements from the board are usually approved and signed by the BOT as a whole.

  20. I’ve not seen any specific evidence that indicates these two BOT members are any more responsible for decisions made by the board as a whole, or even for the culture created among this current board, than any other specific BOT member. I have seen no concrete reason given for singling either of them out in this case.

    Chris, I appreciate your comments. I too find it preposterous that Kristina has been cast as a “shady character” because she was a terminated employee. If anything, for an employee to be terminated (I believe it was because of tardiness – who among us has never been late to work?) and then still run for a position on the board (an unpaid role) shows an incredible amount of dedication to and passion for this cooperative organization.

    Nobody is perfect. As a member/owner of Central Co-op, I would rather put my vote behind individuals who work as hard as they can with passion and dedication, even making some mistakes along the way, then people who work hard to create divisiveness and jump to extreme actions without making a fair attempt to work through specific grievances using the appropriate, established channels.

    I encourage every member/owner to meet and converse with both Ms. Kokonis and Ms. Kleinholz to get a sense of the high moral character and dedication to the cooperative process that they both possess, and really examine the scant evidence presented in favor of their removal, before signing any petition.

    Melissa Sokolowsky
    Central Co-op Member/Owner # 38360

  21. Where is the documented proof? Where were these people up till the point of recall? Where they at the meetings? You have to do more than bitch, you have to offer solutions and step up.

  22. The idealism and hypocrisy at the coop cannot be overstated. It’s really really disturbing that I work here. I would voice opposition but I would probably just end up losing my job. The rules there are enforced selectively and if tardiness is why the current board member was fired it seems to make this seem like a but of a witch hunt.

  23. The employee was only let go after the the GM started, 2-1/2 months after the incident. After people found out about the incident and started asking questions, HR and the other directors(since we were without a GM) got involved and asked the employee to step down. He refused and went to the board instead. The board spent coop money for an outside investigator for the incident. After the investigator came back with the recommendation to fire the employee, the board (under Kokonis’ leadership) agreed to do nothing about the matter and passed it off to the incoming GM with a recommendation to keep the employee. I witnessed the employee outside b-sing with Kokonis multiple times after the investigation and it was obvious that he was not going to be reprimanded until the GM stepped in.
    In addition, the other employee involved in the incident was also investigated at the same time, with a recommendation to let him go as well. Currently that employee is still employed at Central Co-op and living with former board treasurer Claudia Kienholz. I have the documentation to prove it.
    Lastly, silentWORKER, saying that 85% of the staff are drug users is very offensive. thanks so much

  24. For clarifying facts in direct response to the allegations you can go to:

    Please read and discern for yourself.
    Thank you!
    Coop Owner/Member, Max Walsh 22920

  25. After reading the petitioner’s allegations and the BoT’s responses, it seems to me that the organizers of the petition are targeting two members of a consensus driven board with a loose understanding of roles, rules and significance. I find the board’s itemized response to the allegations wholly satisfactory. Half the time, they are contextualing and clarifying standard procedures and governance rules that the petioners bring up pointedly and hot-headedly. Sorry, y’all, but the petitioners allegations don’t stand up.

    Jennifer Hydrick
    Member #36385
    Member since 2004, above membership started when I was a worker in 2005-06.