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Though the financial stability and the future expansion of the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op factored into a board of directors candidates’ forum Tuesday night, it was dominated by another issue that has recently divided the co-op members.
The recent efforts to ban Israeli products from co-op shelves has led to discussion over whether a grocery store is the appropriate venue for a political boycott and the power the board of directors has over proposed boycotts. It has even spawned a lawsuit.
Five candidates are running for two open spots on the co-op board, and those elected will serve three-year terms.
Incumbent board members Alicia Dienst and Ann Richardson are up against Phyllis Ehlert, Cody Potter and Susan Bush. To read background on the candidates, click here.
Moderator Marcia Tennyson asked the candidates prepared questions that ranged from what they think are the values of the co-op to specific ones about the recent efforts to boycott Israel.
Candidates were asked what the most important responsibility of a co-op board member is, and they differed in their responses, with Ehlert saying the biggest responsibility is fiduciary.
She added that board members “should be above reproach and create trust among members.”
Richardson agreed that financial responsibility is priority No. 1.
“We clearly are a very successfully run business,” she said.
The co-op sells about $25 million worth of products annually, according to General Manager Paul Cultrera.
Bush focused on the need to represent the membership in its entirety.
“Except for one small part of the bylaws, this is not a direct democracy,” she said. “I am prepared to defend that part of the bylaws that says members have the right to petition and have that petition put on the ballot.”
Potter said he agreed with Bush, adding that it’s necessary to involve the members in the decision-making process.
“You’re representing them, and you have to put out surveys and ask them (questions), otherwise you’re only representing a fraction of the membership,” he said.
Dienst said she thinks the board is charged with developing a vision for the co-op to follow 10, 20 and 30 years down the road.
“In developing that vision, obviously board members have a substantial responsibility to connect to the membership,” she said.
The future of the co-op was hinted at, with mention of the lease on the current store expiring in two years. All candidates agreed that if the membership decides to relocate, it’s an issue that will need a lot of thought put into it.
The focus turned to the Israeli boycott issue on one of the questions about halfway through, and that topic dominated the rest of the debate.
Potter, bringing up the apartheid regime in South Africa, said boycotts are proven to have an effect, and he thinks the co-op should boycott Israeli goods to bring about change in what he thinks is an inhumane occupation in Palestine.
“I don’t think there’s anywhere in the bylaws that says we can’t boycott products (for political reasons),” he said.
Dienst and Richardson avoided commenting on the boycott directly, saying that their attorneys have advised them not to speak about it since the co-op is currently involved in a lawsuit on the issue.
Ehlert said she is opposed to the boycott.
“Our world is too complex for simple decisions,” she said, adding that any boycott should be done at the grassroots level, where members make their own purchasing decisions.
“Years ago, there was a grape boycott,” she said. “If you didn’t support them, you didn’t buy them.”
Bush disagreed, saying her view on the bylaws is that allowing members to petition the board to have a measure put on the annual ballot to the full membership is the only way members themselves have a direct representation in the store.
Throughout the debate, the approximately 45 people in the audience applauded, and some held up signs saying “No BDS,” referencing the group wishing to boycott, divest and sanction Israel. They were later told to only react when they agreed with something, with a silent thumbs-up, because the applause and noise was disruptive and took too much time away from the debate.
Ehlert said she thinks it is the role of the board of directors to filter some of the issues, since no set of bylaws can be written to anticipate every controversy that might come up.
Bush said the board should have a role in reviewing initiatives but anything over reviewing them is “usurping rights of the membership as they are enshrined in the bylaws.”
Questions from the audience also focused on the issues surrounding the boycott initiative, and Potter said he would support boycotting goods from other countries, such as China and Syria, that have human rights violation records.
He added that proposed boycotts of products from nations guilty of human rights violations “deserve serious discussion.”
Dienst said bringing the politics of foreign nations is “inside-out” from what the co-op is about.
“The co-op’s mission has been to provide natural food and sustainably produced food,” she said, adding that 80-90 percent of the products are locally produced.
Bush said the reason the focus has been on Israel is because the U.S. government supports the occupation of Palestine. She said that stance silences the voice of opposition in the United States.
Dienst disagreed, saying that their voices were being heard at the forum.
Richardson added to Dienst’s comments: “If we hadn’t been sued, you’d be hearing more about this issue tonight from us.”
Dienst urged co-op members to vote.
“Your involvement is critical,” she said. “It absolutely is.”
A video of the forum was recorded, and it will be available on YouTube through the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op website later this week, according to Board Member Michelle Reynolds.
Ballots must be postmarked by Sept. 3, and votes will be counted by Sept. 10, with new board members taking office Oct. 4.
Brandon Darnell is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Darnell.