Farmers Market meeting centers on change

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WALLA WALLA — Voices peaked at near-shouting levels at a Farmers Market board meeting Monday night, where supporting and opposing vendors both lauded and lambasted the market’s current board and management.

The end result of the emotional discussion was that board members said they would work on forming a consensus with all vendors — especially those critical of the market — by moving forward to study and possibly implement a variety of changes in the market’s communication, management and board models.

The board would then take the proposed changes to city officials to show it had settled its vendor disputes, in hopes of staving off the city’s threats to not renew the market’s lease next year.

At an informal meeting Friday, City Manager Nabiel Shawa told a number of disgruntled vendors that his plan is to not renew the Farmers Market lease, but instead to send out a request for bids to find a new operator.

Board members said the city’s move was tantamount to forcing them to shut down and allow another organization to take over the market they worked 16 years to build.

“We should be able to run this ourselves. We don’t need the city to come in and run this,” board member Bud Locati said.

At Monday’s meeting, a small group of vendors brought up a number of areas in which they want change, including term limits for board members, a more open system to voice complaints, a yearly management review, greater access for financial statements and more marketing.

Supporters of the current market argued that the board often has trouble finding members to serve and that there already is a vendor complaint system in the rules.

The board is also considering using third-party advisers who would review and make suggestions on the market’s financial and management systems.

Board member Damien Sinnott questioned if it made sense to move forward with the changes if disgruntled vendors were not going to back up the board and management after those changes had been made.

“I need to know from the folks who have concerns is if this plan is in place here on how we are going to fix them, are you behind it?” Sinnott said.

Sinnott’s questioning forced board members and vendors to deal with one of the more contentious topics at the meeting, which was whether the market needed a new manager.

A number of vendors at the meeting showed strong support for the current manager, Beth-Aimee McGuire, noting that during her management the market has grown from 20 to roughly 100 vendors and has seen the addition of numerous programs, such as the acceptance of WIC vouchers at the market.

“She has gotten all the programs so we can be successful. You are lucky, we are all lucky to have her,” vendor Gilda Paige said. “She is the one who got us to where we are today.”

But a handful of vendors continued to stand firm in their belief that management of the market needed to change.

“If that management structure remains as it is, I don’t think I can get behind it. I think there has to be a dramatic change,” vendor Andy Asmus said.

Near the end of the 80-minute discussion, vendor and state representative Maureen Walsh heightened the debate by blaming McGuire for many of the current problems.

“I am afraid it has been a lack of management on your part that has caused this, Aimee,” Walsh said. The statement led to a brief but loud debate between Walsh and McGuire.

After a couple of minutes of intense arguing between the two, the discussion settled to a moderate level.

A few more comments were made by board members and vendors, all of whom agreed they want to resolve their issues and continue with the market, but they also need to work out their differences.

“We have gone from 20 people. Now we are over 100 people. We got growing pains … We want to make it work, but it is a two-way situation. And we really appreciated the input tonight,” board President Ron Courson said.

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