A firm divide amongst the seven Ozark Natural Food board members has created a majority alliance that recently resulted in the termination of general manager and longtime employee Alysen W. Land.
The decision to fire Land was made during a board meeting March 26, when four board members — Jim Roughton, Kathryn Scherer, Sue Graham and Linda Ralston — voted to remove Tuesday Eastlack and Colleen Pancake from their respective positions of president and vice president.
The majority then put Roughton and Scherer in their stead and carried on with a revised meeting agenda that included an executive session, the result of which was the termination of Alysen Land.
Land, who was officially terminated without cause, has been described by various people as having a “strong personality” and experienced a similar conflict with last year’s board. The previous board attempted to fire Land, alleging that she had created a hostile work environment among her staff.
As the current board gave no cause for the reasons behind Land’s dismissal, it leaves only room to speculate to the actual reasons behind her termination. There was no succession plan in place, other than the one Land herself had created, which promoted Mike Anzalone to the position.
A blanket statement from the Board reveals that, similarly to the decision to terminate Land, they needed no cause to demote Pancake and Eastlack from their positions.
“All officers serve at the pleasure of the Board and any officer may be replaced when, according to the
bylaws, it is in the best interest of the cooperative. Various actions … by the previous president and vice president influenced the decision of the Board to replace Tuesday and Colleen. The bylaws do not require any violation of duties since the officers serve at the pleasure of the board.”
The decision to remove Eastlack and Pancake from their positions as president and vice president was twofold as it allowed the majority to create an agenda to terminate Land as well as to cancel a special meeting that was scheduled to take place later in the week.
The special meeting was called by Eastlack during her presidency in response to fellow board member Garrett Brown’s petition. The agenda of the meeting was to discuss the dismissal of two board members: Sue Graham and Linda Ralston. Eastlack consulted with the ONF lawyers on how to proceed, but the majority says it was never clear exactly why Graham and Ralston were being petitioned for removal.
“The petition reasons given were very vague and legally insufficient for removal,” reads the blanket statement issued in reference to grievances against Graham and Ralston.
Brown said members of the staff cited harassment and abuse from the board members, but Brown could not go into details because it would be a classified personnel matter.
“Grievances have been filed against Linda, Sue and Jim based on their interactions with staff,” said Brown.
The special meeting was canceled on Monday, giving members only 48 hours notice of the change. In an email, Ralston dismisses the grievances as “bogus petitions of removal” and urges members to ignore the meeting as illegal.
The Board’s emphasis on legality is the result of the board’s new lawyer, John Eldridge III, who replaced Ozark Natural Foods legal counsel after the special meeting was announced in February. The attorney advised the board that the bylaw concerning director removal were “not proper and violated the state statute under with the co-op was created.”
“The state overcomes bylaws of what was once a buying club that turned into a cooperative,” said Graham in defense of her position that the special meeting was illegal.
Advised by the board’s attorney that no board members could be dismissed if no crime had been committed, the majority players deemed the meeting illegal and did not attend.
But many people did.
At least 175 owners shared information and concerns and opinions about the future of the co-op. And many people shared the sentiment that they wished they had been more involved.
Employees of the Ozark cooperative pooled their funds to rent the meeting space, and after asking for donations to alleviate the costs, more than $800 was
donated to the cause.
The end decision was to use the extra money for the next special meeting, but with litigation undermining the validity of the meeting, the results of subsequent meetings could easily be overlooked by the board.
After validating that the voters were active members, the count of 175 votes represented a strong public opinion to dismiss the board members in question, at 143 voting to remove, 10 voting against and 22 undecided.
But to the board majority, the votes mean nothing.
“The meeting last night had no outcome. If anyone thinks there is, they are incorrect,” says Graham.
Though some may argue that adhering to state laws is a means by which to restructure bylaws, others would argue that the laws are being used to wield power and intimidate employees.
Marketing director Alexa Griff was one of the employees who stood up at the special meeting. She spoke on behalf of her fellow employees who were “terrified of the board.”
“They heard that this lawyer had been telling [the board] that they are in charge of everything and they can fire you for whatever reason. One of the board members even told a staff member that they could fire her for wearing a green dress,” Griff continued. “I’m prepared for them to fire me for speaking tonight.”
During the same executive session during which it was decided to fire Land, another employee was also terminated. Stephanie Conway, part-time secretary, was fired without cause, and her position was absorbed by a former employee who had resigned under duress during Land’s leadership.
“I demanded answers,” said Conway, who was given no cause. “I loved that job. I love the co-op. I love doing that job, so I was extremely upset when I found out. I’ve been a dedicated employee for a long time.”
The majority says no decision was made to terminate Conway, but others say the vote was clear.
Conway has hopes that the board will vote to rehire her, and she will gladly take the position. “It is more than just a grocery store. A lot of people really care about the co-op.”
When the board was asked about Land’s termination in relation to other ONF’s employees job security, the majority of the board stated,
“Any employee of any company in the State of Arkansas who does not have a contract for employment is an ‘at will’ employee. The Board has been advised that any employee at any company may be discharged without cause, provided it is not for a constitutionally prohibited reason like age, race, sex, religion, etc., so this discharge should not cause any employee to be concerned beyond what the law already provides. The Board’s intent was to convey to the employees through the interim General Manager (IGM) that we did not intend to take further staff action. The General Manager, over the years, terminated employees in the same manner.”
Employee sentiment at the Thursday meeting was strongly in favor of Alysen Land’s leadership, and her business record and reputation in the national co-op grocer community is expansive. With more than a decade of general management experience, Land took the co-op from financially bankrupt to a multimillion dollar store.
Whether or not she would be willing to take the position if rehired, is unknown as Land was unavailable for comment.
Brown, whose term will end at the end of the current election cycle, says he thinks the root cause of the conflict between members of the board can be summed up in one word: “power.”
“I believe that the other four want more power and are doing whatever they can to get that,” he says. “I want less power and less hands-on daily functioning of the store.”
“I don’t believe a board of seven owners is adequately trained or has the background to run a grocery store. I don’t have the experience or desire to run a grocery store at a micro-level,” he says, adding that it’s difficult to direct a GM when there’s no way to know how those orders play out and affect the organization.
This coup d’état will be the final feat of this board, as the election process is nearing an end.
To become involved with the co-op, you can visit Ozark Natural foods at 1554 North College Avenue in Fayetteville or you can visit their website at www.OzarkNaturalFoods.com.
OFFICIAL OZARK NATURAL FOODS STATEMENT
We are well aware that there is a conflict going on within our Board. This conflict is one that will likely work itself out in the next few weeks with the end of an election and the seating of new Board members. With 7 people serving on a Board to represent over 9,300, there are likely to be differing viewpoints and that can lead to issues. We are hopeful that these issues will all be resolved in a few weeks.
We only had about 4% participation in this current election and we would love to see that percentage greatly increase. We believe that owner involvement is important and necessary in the co-operative business model. We ask our 9,300 owners to get involved in the happenings of the Co-op. Involvement can happen through voting for our Board, attending Board meetings, running for our Board, and attending owner forums. The democratic process is the cornerstone of the cooperative business model. And when the ownership is engaged in the process, the direction of the co-op becomes clearer.