Farmers' Market dispute boils over

Walla Walla Farmer's Market starts attact customers on the first Saturday of the market this year.

Walla Walla Farmer's Market starts attact customers on the first Saturday of the market this year. Photo by Matthew Zimmerman Banderas.

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On the board

The board of directors for the Walla Walla Valley Farmers' Market:

Bud Locati, locati1090@msn.co...

Damien Sinnott, damiensinnott@hot...

Ron Courson

John Zerba

Jayne Foster

Nikki Phillips

Blayne Barnhart

Susan Hosticka

WALLA WALLA -- A dispute between a vendor and the manager of the Walla Walla Valley Farmers' Market has grown into a full-scale clash at the heart of a beloved community event.

Weeks of simmering frustrations came to a head this week, dividing vendors in an emotionally charged conflict over the market's policies, personalities and power.

An emergency board meeting was the start of vetting issues and mending fences Tuesday. In its wake came a few surprises that will also have to be addressed, officials said. One is that customers and even many vendors haven't known where to turn for help because the identities of the non-vendor board members were not commonly known or easily accessible.

Another is that the market has not yet successfully obtained nonprofit status in the six years since splitting from the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation. Consequently, the market is categorized as a for-profit venture, a designation that makes many uncomfortable.

Though some vendors came from the meeting encouraged about having the chance to air their grievances, others are calling for the ouster of market Manager Beth-Aimee McGuire for the handling of the most recent dispute and rising tensions in the operation.

With eight more weekends left in the market's 16th season, the board is determined to continue to offer a dynamic and warm experience for consumers and vendors in a neighborly atmosphere, said board member and Walla Walla Sweet Onion vendor Bud Locati.

"The market will go on, and it's going on no matter what the undercurrent is," Locati said.

Several longtime vendors said this week tension has mounted all season but came to the forefront in a showdown between McGuire and longtime market vendor Antoinette LaRondelle.

In an email blast explaining LaRondelle's side of the story, her son, Serge, said some of the trouble began a couple of months ago when Walla Walla Community College was solicited to bring its Titus Creek mobile food truck to the market as a new vendor.

Food vendors struggled with this new competitive addition for two main reasons. With the economy in a slump, many have already experienced decreased sales. Secondly, though the new vendor may have offered a wider selection of goods to consumers, the added competition pitted a government-supported operation against private-sector businesses.

LaRondelle, who's developed a market following over nearly a decade with her gyros, tabbouleh, hummus and more, reportedly voiced her concern about the food truck to McGuire and was told there would be no change. When LaRondelle suggested she might approach the community college officials about it on her own, she believed her position at the market was threatened. Nevertheless, she contacted officials at the school, who ultimately agreed -- reportedly based on the relatively low income for the sake of training culinary students -- to leave the market.

Shortly after, LaRondelle was alerted that she had been reported to the Health Department for a violation and was immediately dismissed from the market.

Shortly after, LaRondelle was alerted that she had been reported to the Health Department for a violation and was immediately dismissed from the market.

She reportedly addressed the concern from the agency. She learned she had been in violation of a market rule, too, involving how she had stored her meat. She was told she could not come back to finish the season.

On Aug. 31, the Health Department issued the business a new license without LaRondelle's name.

The issue came to a head last weekend. LaRondelle's daughter drove up from California to work the booth in place of her mother. A van used in the process had been parked at the market early in the morning. LaRondelle's daughter was shocked to learn McGuire had been authorized to have the van towed.

In response, help was enlisted from the city, which leases the public property behind City Hall to the market, and the Downtown Foundation, which had been receiving reports for weeks about what had been brewing.

This week Locati said he wasn't there at the time but had approved having the vehicle towed. He said the space that was previously occupied by LaRondelle had been reserved for other vendors after her dismissal. The vehicle, he said, had been left unoccupied early in the morning and was in a spot that was not entirely where LaRondelle had operated.

Whether towing it was ultimately the right decision caused board member Damien Sinnott to pause this week.

"What I learned ... is I need a lot more information," Sinnott said.

He said the names of board members should be added to the market's website. Board members, he said, need to be more active in going out of their way to talk to vendors. He hopes to develop a survey for vendors on their needs and concerns. "I don't mind people voicing their complaints," he said. "I'd love it if they'd voice them to me."

Since word of the exchange has circulated on the web and in social networks, numerous other accusations have been leveled at McGuire -- some crossing a line of appropriateness, said Sinnott, who works by day as vice president for public policy and business development for the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce. He said what started as a disagreement has quickly escalated to involve attorneys.

Though the eight-member market board -- made up of four vendors and four community representatives -- typically meets monthly between September and the start of the market season in May, an emergency meeting was called Tuesday. City representatives and vendors attended, as did McGuire, who was counseled to not speak but to listen to the vendor concerns.

Afterward board members agreed to allow LaRondelle's operation to return to the market this season under a separate operator. She was informed of the decision Wednesday afternoon.

Whether McGuire will face any board disciplinary action has not been clear yet. In a follow-up email, Sinnott said "the board has heard from a number of people regarding various concerns about the management and operation of the market, and we will be investigating these concerns and taking whatever action is necessary to insure that the market continues to be a fantastic experience for all."

Sinnott said he is equally worried about misrepresentation of the market's "for-profit" status.

He said officials have worked for years to be given a nonprofit designation from the Internal Revenue Service. Those attempts have been rejected because of the way the market operates -- similar to a mall with rents being paid by the vendors.

"Technically, folks are correct that it's a for-profit entity," Sinnott said. "But the misconception online is that we're some big corporation behind it."

The operation, he said, has one employee and a volunteer board of directors that operates like a traditional nonprofit. "I think people hear that it's a for-profit and think that means there's a CEO somewhere and a half-dozen vice presidents."

Under the Downtown Foundation's auspices, where the market originally started with 10 or so vendors, it was a nonprofit. But the transition away from the foundation six years ago changed that. Operators had always intended to have nonprofit status and continued to work to find ways to do so.

The departure from the foundation was controversial, too. McGuire had been employed as the market manager through the foundation. But she and vendors were reportedly frustrated that they did not have more say in the use of revenues or even more information about the financial side of the foundation's operation.

The split was somewhat of an emancipation from the perspective of some of the vendors. There were hard feelings, Locati said.

Scrutiny of the market has become more elevated. A website called "Stop Beth-Aimee McGuire" has been launched by LaRondelle's supporters. A petition on the page seeks assistance from the city and downtown foundation, the latter of which has no legal oversight or authority over the market, to intervene.

Walla Walla City Manager Nabiel Shawa, who attended Tuesday's meeting, said the situation needs to be resolved in a civil manner. The city leases the property but does not make decisions about vendor selection or the operation itself.

The market pays the city 5 percent of gross stall revenues in an annual allotment within 30 days of the close of market season. The city's portion of revenues is dedicated back to maintenance and improvements to the public market facility.

Shawa said his hope is that the board will figure out a way to quell the tension for the rest of the season and address any unresolved long-term concerns more meaningfully when the market ends.

"The interest of the city is we want to see a well-functioning friendly farmers market for the benefit of the citizens of the community, the farmers and the vendors," Shawa said.

That's the interest, too, of the vendors, said state Rep. Maureen Walsh, who's been selling her Walla Walla Sweet Onion sausages at the market since its first year in 1997. Walsh said she's been deeply concerned about the direction of the operation.

"I just have watched this year as there's been a lot of consternation and concern among the vendors," she said. "I saw a longtime vendor who's been very loyal and kind get tossed out on her tail without any due process or any reason."

During the turmoil Walsh attempted to initiate a survey for vendors. She said she posted a general questionnaire, asking vendors for to express concerns, criticisms or suggestions and offered to keep the comments anonymous as she presented them to the board. She said her survey was met with "disdain." The board president, Ron Courson, took one down and ripped it up in front of her.

She said she admires those who volunteer to serve their time. She was encouraged after Tuesday's meeting that voices were heard and wants to see an end to the "uncomfortable dynamic" that exists.

"I'm concerned about this issue because it is so much a part of my life," Walsh said. "I cannot sit still and watch this market continue as it has been."

At this point, the Downtown Foundation has no plan to attempt to take over the operation, said Executive Director Elio Agostini. He said his office wants to do whatever it can to assist. But it will not do anything without the request from the market's board.

"The Farmers' Market is critical to downtown," Agostini said. "It's critical to the ambiance of downtown, and we want them to do well."

"I want to help them, but I do not want to help them in a dishonorable way. So this must be resolved with their board."

He said challenges between vendors and management are generally resolvable.

"With the board and management working together with the tenants I don't see why there would be any need for the foundation to be involved."

Comments

gayleshoun 2 years, 3 months ago

What about communication? Does anyone there know how to do that? It sounds like a case of "he said" "she said" and nobody hears anything. Just talk to the person you need to hear you. Then put it in writing and send or give it to them. Enjoy your beautiful Market and have some fun.

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WADOC 2 years, 3 months ago

Beth has done a great job throughout the years and by no means is her job easy! Some people should be happy they get to sell at the Farmers Market. And competion is the American way. Go Beth!!!!!

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PeggyJoy 1 year, 9 months ago

Sounds like a bunch of children! Where are the adults? Hold a meeting with ALL venders and so-called board members. If the board members don't wish to have their name/info given out.......they should resign. Prior to the meeting ALL venders should receive a list of rules/regulations to vote on, plus room to add rules/regulations they themselves would like to add/delete.

As for me............I would not allow any food trucks in the area. The Farmers Market is a place to sell produce, not prepared food. If a vender has a product they wish to sell by giving out cooked/baked samples.............sausages, that would be keeping in line with a produce market.

Food trucks need to find somewhere else to set up their trucks.

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