The Sevananda Natural Foods Market, located in Little Five Points, has filed suit against several of its members, alleging they violated the food cooperative’s bylaws and attempted to improperly influence its governing board.
The lawsuit was filed July 24 in DeKalb County Superior Court on behalf of Sevananda Cooperative Inc., which is governed by a nine-member board of directors.
The lawsuit asks the court to intervene on the cooperatives behalf and accuses nominating committee member Brian Sherman along with nominating committee members Felton Eaddy and Abdullah Muqtsaid of being a “vocal minority of members who have sought to improperly shape the policies and governance of Sevananda by violating bylaws.”
According to the lawsuit, the nominating committee originally contained eight members but five of them resigned for various reasons, including “harassment and disrespect” by other members of the nominating committee.
The suit asks for injunctive relief and an order to be issued declaring the recent elections void. It also asks to have a board representative “repopulate the nominating committee” and to conduct a new board election.
Additionally, the lawsuit is seeking punitive damages and claims breach of contract and fiduciary duties and also states, “Sevananda is entitled to recover its cost of litigation including attorney’s fees…because the defendants have acted in bad faith, have been stubbornly litigious, and have caused Sevananda unnecessary trouble and expense.”
Elections for Sevananda’s board of directors are staggered and each year, three seats become available. Meetings are held twice a year and during the fall members’ meeting, which is open to the Sevananda’s more than 3,000 members, a nominating committee is elected to run the elections.
“We were appointed during the fall members’ meeting and proceeded to find candidates. When we found candidates we set the date for the election—it took place and over 300 people voted,” said Brian Sherman, a member of the nominating committee. Sherman is named in the lawsuit.
Sherman said after the elections took place, the board of directors seized the ballot box before the votes could be counted. At that time, July 13, the board issued a statement that read said, “Due to pending legal proceedings, the previously planned ballot count for this year’s election has been postponed. The ballots have been secured to avoid any possible tampering until that time.”
Several weeks after the board seized the box the lawsuit was filed. Sherman said he thinks it may have something to do with the fact that Calvin Vismale, the current board president, filed his election paperwork late and was not included on the ballot.
Vismale has been a member of the cooperative since 1975 and has served on the board several times.
“We did not accept his application because it was late,” Sherman said.
According to Sherman, the seizure of the ballot box is a violation of the cooperative’s bylaws because the nominating committee is supposed to be an autonomous body within Sevananda to administer the elections, a step he said is necessary to prevent a conflict of interest for board members who are running for election. He also said the board previously seized the ballot box in 2009.
“Democracy is not vigorous at Sevananda and some of us are working on that,” Sherman said. “But, I don’t see any underhanded agenda on the part of Calvin aside from the fact he wants to remain president.”
According to Sherman, Vismale has repeatedly held meetings behind closed doors when there is nothing in Sevananda’s bylaws that allow for it. Sherman also said that at each members’ meeting decisions are made on a consensus basis, which means that one person may block a decision.
“At last fall’s members’ meeting there was a proposal that information concerning any money spent by the board that was more than $100 should be open to the members,” Sherman said. “In this case, Calvin was the only person who blocked consensus on that issue.”
Ramsey Knowles, attorney for Sevananda Cooperative Inc., wouldn’t comment on the details of the suit but said. “We tell the story in the complaint and we don’t want to add or subtract anything.”
Vismale said he would not comment on the lawsuit but any personal attacks and allegations “are unfortunate.”