Following weeks of disputes that included social media flame wars, allegations of misfeasance, and even allegations of death threats on a Facebook members group, the entire board of the Green Top Grocery Co-op in Bloomington has resigned. It follows at least two previous board resignations.
“With the bullying, abuse and threats we have endured from some owners, we can honestly say we do not feel there is a path to solve this matter in a way that is satisfactory to all owners, staff, and the community with the current board in place,” said the board.
In an email to owners, the board acknowledged it had made mistakes in handling allegations of improper interference in store operations by a board member who resigned earlier and in communicating with owners.
Current board members include Monica Adams, Jerica Etheridge, Sarah Bauer, Nikki Jackson, Elisabeth Reed, and Ron Slagel. Several of them are relatively new and came on board amid the growing controversy.
Among the allegations are that a previous board member acted unethically and caused high staff turnover. Interim General Manager Nicholas Walters acknowledged during an online owners meeting that six to seven people have been hired in the last two months, including a new marketing director.
The message also claimed board actions have been misconstrued and the narrative that the board did nothing to investigate complaints is not accurate. Board members said they tried to save money on legal fees by doing an internal investigation, but when former employee Michael Talley went public on Facebook with his complaint, other people came forward with separate allegations. Former Board member Melanie Shellito, mentioned by Talley, said she denies his allegations. Green Top has now engaged an attorney with human resources emphasis to consider those issues, according to the board.
Another issue of contention was racially insensitive advertising that included a picture of an African American person and a notice that LINK cards (to buy SNAP eligible products) are accepted which was sent to residents on the west side of Bloomington. Another mailer sent to east side residents included a picture of a Caucasian person and the information 'we have wine.'
The board said no one involved in that decision remains at Green Top. The message to members also acknowledged the mailer "perpetuated unconsious bias and was in poor taste." The message encouraged board member candidacies from people of diverse backgrounds.
The board resignations will take effect July 28 after an election of new board members. That process will be shepherded by former board member Michael Gorman.
The uproar comes at a time when Green Top is still trying to stabilize its finances and grow sales. In November 2018, the co-op raised an additional $300,000 in private capital that allowed it to continue operations and refinance its commercial debt. Board member Jerica Etheridge told potential board candidates during a board meeting that they will bear fiduciary responsibility for the store and the $1.5 million in total owner loans.
Of late, matters have gone better. Walters, the interim GM, told a virtual board meeting Tuesday evening that he is hopeful a $100,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan application will be approved. He also noted more positive sales in a recent quarter.
“We’re starting to see a little bit of sun,” said Walters, who promised a "soft" ownership drive in July and a "hard" ownership drive in the fall "before a potential spike in COVID-19 cases."
Board member Sarah Bauer told owners during discussion of a separate agenda item that caution is merited.
“While we are in a better financial situation for the moment, that is new. And it might be just for the moment,” she said.
The board did extend Walters an offer to become the permanent general manager. In sounding a hopeful note during the meeting, Walters said Green Top is born of love, not competition, and paraphrased the philosopher Plato’s discussion of an ideal state.
“The essence of a cooperative is a dance of democracy and there is a tension in democracy between variety and disorder,” said Walters.
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