Kootenay Co-op is embroiled in a board conflict concerning the reassignment of long-time general manager Deirdrie Lang.

Shake up at the Kootenay Co-op

Two directors have resigned, long-time manager Deirdrie Lang has been reassigned.

Two Kootenay Country Store Co-operative board members have resigned while the store’s long-time general manager has been relieved of her duties but will remain involved in the Nelson Commons development.

Olindo Chiocca and Leon Pigott both told the Star they stepped down from the board late last month over concerns about the process used to determine Deirdrie Lang’s future with the organization. They allege both Robert’s Rules of Order and the cooperative’s own policies weren’t followed during the multi-month process.

“Since the first of January there has been no business conducted except on this one question. The board has been broken, and it’s going to take a lot of work to fix it,” said Pigott, who said he was heartbroken by the outcome.

Chiocca echoed his sentiments.

“In my eyes this whole process, including coming to the conclusion that Deirdrie had to be relieved of her duties as general manager, was definitely against the board’s policies and rules. It’s very important that the membership knows about this, and about what went on. If the membership doesn’t mind and doesn’t care, that’s fine. But they need to know.”

Both Chiocca and Pigott expressed concern the co-op would pursue legal action against them.

‘Change is healthy’

Co-op president Jon Steinman declined to discuss board deliberations, citing confidentiality requirements, but refuted the claim normal business hasn’t been completed during the past four months.

“Change is a healthy and essential component to a strong cooperative and a strong business,” he said. “The board is stronger than I’ve ever seen it, and we’re really looking forward to working with our new directors.”

The board has appointed Andrew Jarrett and Zoë Creighton to replace Pigott and Chiocca. Both have extensive experience with co-ops. Jarrett has spent nine years coordinating the Kootenay Boundary Community Services Co-op, while Creighton was a founding director of Kootenay Co-op Radio and has been the Kootenay Co-op’s board assistant for close to a decade.

The appointments will last until the co-op’s annual general meeting in September.

“Directors are at liberty to resign at any point. We’re grateful to have two highly experienced members to take their place,” said Steinman.

However, he took a dim view of the two past directors speaking out.

“With the nature of the deliberations the board has been having, it would be inappropriate for any director or past director to comment, and it’s a breach of their confidentiality agreement as directors to the members and to each other.”

Steinman expressed dismay that Pigott and Chiocca decided to make their concerns public.

“This will all affect the Nelson Commons project and the future of the co-op. What we’re communicating is part of the change we’ve been seeing internally. We’re trying to get the right people in the right positions with the right level of support for all projects.”

Pigott, a commercial lawyer, and Chiocca, a geotechnical engineer, both said they wouldn’t normally approach the media about this issue, but extreme circumstances forced them to act.

Some Kootenay Co-op members are reportedly trying to have a special meeting called to discuss the issue, but Steinman said he hadn’t heard of it yet and such a meeting would be unprecedented.

“At this point it’s premature, but we will be reporting on the changes taking place at the AGM.”

Steinman had no comment on whether Kootenay Co-op plans to pursue legal action against Pigott and Chiocca.

Board conflict

Chiocca said the board was cleaved 4-2 over the issue of Lang’s dismissal, and relationships between directors have deteriorated drastically since January.

“It’s been hell,” he said.

Chiocca believes there wasn’t a legitimate reason to relieve Lang of her position.

“She’s been with the co-op for almost 25 years, it’s one of the biggest and most successful co-ops in Canada. Our sales are going up six to eight per cent a year and we’re busting at the seams. They were talking like ‘well, she may have to go’ and I said ‘well, why?’ She’s done so much for the co-op and this is how they thank her?”

Pigott said the “board resorted to multiple abuses of power, process and breaches of the rules of co-op.”

In a letter addressed to the community, Pigott alleged the board made last-minute changes to agenda items to impair the ability of board members to speak to proposed actions, paid for a lawyer personally retained by a board member, withheld consultant reports and meeting minutes from board members and strictly limited the amount of time a member was allowed to speak.

“In one instance Leon was in mid-discussion, saying something uncomfortable to the board, and the president adjourned the meeting in the middle of Leon’s sentence,” said Chiocca.

Chiocca said once he received minutes from a meeting he and Pigott couldn’t attend, he discovered the board had hired a lawyer to investigate his conduct on the board.

“It intimidated me because even though I had done nothing wrong, just to defend myself would have cost me a fortune. They had the near-unlimited resources of the co-op behind them to waste while I couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer for one hour.”

Chiocca said he decided then to leave.

Pigott, meanwhile, has distributed a letter outlining his concerns and is encouraging co-op members to contact the board at board@kootenay.coop.

He’s suggesting a special committee comprised of three former co-ops chairs supported by an expert in corporate governance be struck to investigate the board’s actions over the past four months and provide a report to the membership.

“I believe the membership is entitled to understand how their cooperative is being governed,” he said.

Looking forward

The co-op has already named a new interim general manager, Paul Kelly, the current grocery manager. He joined the co-op in November and has 17 years experience in the natural foods industry.

Lang will continue to be involved with the Nelson Commons development, which will see a new co-op store built at the east end of Baker St. with residential units  above it.

The co-op informed its members of the changes this week in a member update, in which it said that as the co-op embarked on Nelson Commons, Lang’s role “expanded dramatically.” She was responsible for overseeing both the store and the development, along with project manager Russell Precious.

“There is little question that the responsibilities of such a role are significant and Deirdrie has been steadfast in her commitment to the project,” the update said. “As we look ahead, it is clear that organization change is necessary to steward the co-op through its next phases. The board has therefore redefined what the leadership of the store and Nelson Commons looks like.”

Officially, Lang has been named co-manager of the development.

“This change will provide Deirdrie with more capacity to focus her attention on Nelson Commons while providing the store with leadership and management capacity,” the update said.

Lang declined to be interviewed for this story.

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