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Manitoids throw down over the future of their fledgling co-op

On a recent Monday night, about 75 people headed to Manitou Springs City Hall — and if you have a stereotype of the typical Manitoid, this crowd probably wouldn't have cured you of it. Men tended toward beards and long hair, women were partial to long cotton skirts and handmade jewelry.

Initially, the group appeared peaceful, gabbing at communal tables while eating a meal involving hummus and spinach. But things went south over the next 2½ hours, devolving into pacifist-style verbal warfare, if there is such a thing.

At issue was the future of Local First Grocer, a small food co-op in downtown Manitou Springs that's been around for less than three months.

Founder Elise Rothman d'Hauthuille had big dreams for it. She wanted to make local food affordable while bringing people together. She wanted to encourage Manitoids to keep their grocery dollars in town, and to pick up their basics via biking or walking. She also expected the store to act as an experiment that could provide data on the carbon footprint of foods, demonstrate the ability of a local grocer to improve the health of a community, and have a positive economic effect on local farmers.

She says she planned the store on a "hybrid model," expecting it to be supported as much by grants, investors and other funding as by shoppers and dues.

But it doesn't appear that Rothman d'Hauthuille will have much say in how Local First turns out. A few weeks ago, she was fired by the interim board, made up mostly of members she appointed.

All involved agree that the store has had financial problems. The nine-member board (which currently has vacancies) and employees say they're working to fix them. But Rothman d'Hauthuille says she doesn't think they know how, and that if she isn't brought back soon, she doesn't expect the store to last beyond August.

The infighting and financial problems appear to have come as a surprise to around 150 co-op members, about 20 of whom signed a petition asking for the July 21 meeting, where they hoped to have a chance to oust the board. Among them was member Crystal Jonas, who got plenty of cheers when she calmly proclaimed, "Y'all, when I first heard that there was a rift between the key members of the co-op, my first thought was, you have got to be shitting me."

Differing opinions

Rothman d'Hauthuille has spent most of her adult life in France, but was working in Wales when she was called to Manitou Springs in early 2013 to work on a nonprofit project to save wild horses.

The project didn't come to fruition, but Rothman d'Hauthuille fell in love with the town, and soon began envisioning a way to make it even better. She got around without a car and thought that an in-town grocery store would be a wonderful asset. With years of experience as a nonprofit advocate, she felt she had what it would take to make it work.

She'd originally planned to open the doors of Local First in March, but the store didn't open until May. She says that although she appointed a board to oversee the co-op, it was organized around her connections, her projects and her sweat equity. Nevertheless, she was fired.

Asked why she was let go, she has theories. She notes that Luke Cissell was on the board at the time, and since her departure has been working longer hours as a co-manager. (Cissell counters that his vote wasn't needed to fire her, and says hourly wages have been reduced, even if he has worked more hours.) But she says she thinks the biggest wedge between her and the board is that she thinks the board simply thinks of Local First as a grocery store, and doesn't realize that store sales were never intended to make up all the revenues.

Now, grants and other monies she was in the process of securing are all on hold, she says, yet the store has stepped up its purchasing even as infighting has driven customers away.

Cissell, meanwhile, says that sales have rebounded and the store just had its top week so far. He says he did step up purchasing, because he noticed that if locals came in for basics, like eggs, and found them out of stock, they wouldn't come back to the store the next time they ran out of something.

Cissell says he admires Rothman d'Hauthuille, and enjoyed working with her to form the store. But, he says, he thinks that she struggled to let go and truly let Local First be a community undertaking, with different people's ideas given equal weight.

"It is a cooperative," he says, "so you have to have a cooperative nature."

Firing squad

The board, represented by attorney Charles Holum, didn't have much to say on Rothman d'Hauthuille's firing, noting it was a personnel decision. But at the meeting, board members did say that the call wasn't "made overnight" and in fact had been considered for months. And while they wouldn't specify why they fired her, members seemed to suggest that although Rothman d'Hauthuille had skills as a visionary and grant writer, she came up lacking as a general manager. One member noted that she had gotten behind on bills and hadn't done the organization's 2013 taxes.

Rothman d'Hauthuille admits she was late on a few bills. The utilities bill, she said, had mistakenly been sent to the wrong address, and when she pointed out the problem all late fees were forgiven. The sales tax filings were also late, she said, but were filed in time to avoid a fine.

As for the taxes, she says Local First was formed Dec. 31, 2013, and thus was expected to file in 2013. But she says she's contacted the IRS and been told that because there was no income there isn't a penalty for not filing.

Gary McMurtrey, an avid volunteer and retiree, was among the co-op members to show up to Monday's meeting to support Rothman d'Hauthuille. "In my opinion, there is not a justifiable reason to fire the general manager," he said. "... It's just not ethical the way they did it."

While the board had its supporters — employee Lily Kempf commented, "I think we have a beautiful team, and every member on it, every board member, is, like, extremely beautiful in their own way" — plenty in the crowd seemed to agree with McMurtrey. After presentations from both sides, the meeting devolved into interrupting and arguing as co-op members made resolution after resolution, most of which either aimed to oust the board or restore some kind of role to Rothman d'Hauthuille.

But Holum, the board's lawyer, said that it would be illegal for members to fire the board at the meeting because it was not confirmed that all members had been invited, a quorum had not been established, and the petition that called for the meeting was not specific enough.

This upset many of the members in the audience, but with the meeting already running into overtime, it was agreed that a board election would be held at a later date.

A notification from the board, asking for candidates to send in résumés by July 27, was sent July 23. As for Rothman d'Hauthuille, she's in Paris now, visiting family and exploring a job opportunity at a start-up that, she says, is very similar to Local First.

stanley@csindy.com

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