D. Maurice Kreis
Term limits at the Co-op? No thanks.
Updated: Apr 18, 2022
It's annual election season at the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society -- known locally as "the Co-op," familiar throughout the Upper Valley as the Co-op Food Stores, and referred to in my family as "the grocery empire." (It is, after all, the nation's second biggest retail food cooperative, with four stores and two auto repair facilities.)
This year the Board is electing directors as usual, but is also proposing five separate sets proposed bylaws amendments for member ratification by the requisite two-thirds vote. I like some of the proposed amendments better than others, but here I am focusing on the one I absolutely, positively hope the membership soundly rejects: term limits.
Today the Co-op is governed by Board consisting of 12 Directors, elected to three-year terms by the Co-op's membership. Now the Board wants to change the bylaws to say that no director can serve more than two consecutive three-year terms. Here's why that's a bad idea:
Term limits are undemocratic. "Democratic member control" is one of the seven Cooperative Principles. The members should be allowed to elect anyone they want, including veteran directors they believe are doing a good job.
Term limits are a solution in search of a problem. Proponents of term limits often tout the idea as a way of making sure that board members don't become entrenched, but there is no history of that happening at the Co-op. In fact, incumbents have failed to gain reelection on several occasions in recent years.
Term limits drain the Board of skill and institutional memory. It takes a while to learn enough about how a co-op works, and how the grocery business works, to become a truly effective Director. Typically, the more experienced board members take newcomers under their wing.
Term limits disempower the Board. When the Board is comprised solely of relatively inexperienced Directors, turning over constantly, the inevitable consequence is that the Board loses power and authority -- in this case, to the management it oversees. I think the world of the current General Manager, Paul Guidone, and his incoming successor Amanda Charland. But they are neither infallible nor immortal.
We already have term limits -- they're called elections (and death). Nobody can serve forever.
The Co-op already has enough trouble recruiting 12 willing and able Directors. It's a bit ironic that the Board is proposing term limits in the same election where half of its 12 seats are open and only one incumbent is seeking reelection. There is a feast-or-famine quality to the elections of recent years; sometimes, the Co-op doesn't even field enough candidates to fill the available seats on the Board.
On the web page announcing this year's election, the Board has a bunch of FAQs related to the proposed bylaws amendments, one of which is: Why does the Board recommend term limits? Here's the answer: "Directors generally serve three-year terms. By restricting a Director to two consecutive three-year terms, the Board hopes to ensure that more Co-op members have the opportunity to serve on the Board, thereby providing wider representation of ideas, needs, and points of view."
That is a notably unpersuasive justification for such a major change to the Co-op's governing document. In my experience -- and I have been monitoring the annual Board election since I became a member in 1997 -- anyone who is truly interested in being a Director gets their chance to serve on the Board. Occasionally, someone ends up having to run and lose before they get the name recognition and support they need to run and win. In other words, there is no legion of members out there who yearn to be Directors only to be thwarted by entrenched incumbents.
Full disclosure: I served as a Director at the Co-op from 2003 to 2013 and again from 2017-2018, including three years (2006-2009) as President of the Board.
Voting in this year's Co-op election runs through the entire month of April, 2022. Information about how/where/why to vote is here. All you need to vote is your member number and zip code.