Fallout from board resignations hits Farmers Market

Vendors complain Vancouver group lacks leadership

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 
photoJordan Boldt, executive director of the Vancouver Farmers Market

Vancouver Farmers Market

When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays, March 16-Oct. 27.

Where: Sixth and Esther Streets, downtown Vancouver.

Next regular board meeting: 7 p.m., May 16, Hilton Vancouver Washington, 301 W. Sixth St.

Website:www.vancouverfarmersmarket.com

The Vancouver Farmers Market is weathering a crisis of leadership.

Directors of what may be Vancouver's best-loved nonprofit corporation -- a delightful downtown draw on weekends from spring through fall -- drew more than a dozen bitter complaints from vendors at an April 25 meeting. Critics said market leadership is manipulative, unresponsive, lacks transparency and stumbles while following its own rules.

"The board is extremely imbalanced and unfair because many seats have not been filled for months," said Judy McManman, who operates Mini Doughnut Shoppe.

"There are no officers listed on the website," said Kelli Crocker of Nutz-R-Us. Crocker said she signed up to help with the market's Food Committee last year but was never contacted, and "nothing happened."

That's because the Food Committee was disbanded last summer. "It is a huge step backwards to not use the committees as they were intended," Crocker said. "The board and the committees need to be whole."

"There is no line of authority," said Velma Conte, another donut vendor, who said she spent nine years on the board. "This is too big an organization not to have elected officers."

According to a recap memo sent to vendors on April 26, the board decided last November -- based partly on the advice of market attorney Steve Horenstein -- to hold open several board seats while proceeding with a rewrite of the market bylaws. That's despite the fact that several candidates were nominated and eager to serve.

The seats stayed open. More seats went vacant in December when several board members resigned. Two more resigned on or around the April 25 meeting.

Why? Different people have different takes on it. Personalities. Histories of friction. As well as the simple fact that board service is challenging and "life happens," as the memo says.

"We're a large farmers market," said executive director Jordan Boldt, who is

an employee of the board. "Every 10 feet you've got another personality. 110 vendors, 110 personalities. Every weekend is like a family dinner at Christmas. You get the plethora of experiences and personalities."

Despite the ongoing vacancies, what's left of the board has been redrafting the market's bylaws this year. Critics said they don't feel represented by this stripped-down group and are suspicious of the bylaws rewrite. They say the process has lacked transparency and should have been undertaken by a filled-up board that enjoys the trust of its members.

May 16 meeting set

The Vancouver Farmer's Market is a 501(c)6 nonprofit -- a business association, not a tax-deductible charity.

Current bylaws specify that 10 board members "shall be elected by the general membership." The formula is supposed to be that "at least four" board members should be agricultural vendors, "up to three" are artisan vendors and "up to three" are food vendors. Plus, there can be as many as five appointed community members and a former market board president -- for a grand total of 16 maximum.

There were seven board members at the April meeting -- since then, with two more resignations, there are just five -- and obvious uncertainty about matters as basic as voting and moving into executive session.

Secretary Christina Baldisseri moved to Philadelphia months ago but has still been acting as a full-fledged board member; a letter from Baldisseri, read at the April 25 meeting, said she plans to resign -- as soon as a replacement can be found. Another board member, Jim Mains, resigned in December but was back on April 25. He introduced himself as a "facilitator." Several in the room seemed surprised when Mains not only ran the meeting but voted during it.

Fred Fry, another board member and past board president, resigned after the meeting. He refused to discuss it with The Columbian. Fry had expected to be booted from the board, but the group went into executive session to deal with him and one other vendor who was the subject of complaints and ejected from the market. That vendor, farmer George Ikonomou of IKO Farms in Hermiston, won an appeal and will return. Fry, who quit the Farmers Market board, also remains as a vendor. He runs Mel Brooks' Fish 'n' Chips.

The board put off approving several sets of meeting minutes that are already many months old. Market members complained that minutes have not been approved or distributed since last summer, leading to suspicions that they are being kept in the dark about what's really going on.

"I really feel the board is having more difficulty right now than at any time when I was on the board," said board veteran Velma Conte. "They are going through a really difficult phase."

City liaison Jan Bader, who was at the meeting, said the Vancouver City Council "has been hearing rumblings about problems with the board" that have provoked worries about the market's future.

What happens next? A closed meeting will be held Monday with attorney Horenstein to clarify the process of revising bylaws and refilling the board. After that, seats should be filled, officers selected and the bylaws draft released to vendors at a regular meeting of the market membership. That meeting is set for 7 p.m. May 16 at the Hilton Vancouver Washington, 301 W. Sixth St.

Good of the whole

Obvious at the April meeting was a central conflict: the need for the whole group to cooperate versus the tendency for individual vendors to compete. Angry words were aimed at a newcomer with a food truck by one longtime Cajun food vendor who feels the competition threatens her livelihood. Some agreed; others suggested it's time for her to "up her game."

Interviewed later, Conte said this board is a tough balancing act for vendors who must put the good of the whole above their own profits. "Just because somebody is on the board doesn't necessarily mean they automatically set aside their own self-interest," she said. "Not everybody is able to make that distinction."

It's not uncommon for turf battles to break out between vendors, she said; it's also not uncommon for vendors who are board members to carry individual resentments and complaints into board meetings.

"There's always some question as to how valid some of these criticisms are," Conte said. "There may be some validity. But sometimes people need to step back and pay attention to their own business rather than attack somebody else."

Vendor-driven

There is controversy over this board being vendor-dominated as opposed to community-dominated. Boldt said some farmers markets are run largely by community members who bring a broader "outside perspective" as well as valuable local connections; on the other hand, he said, a vendor-driven board brings "the perspective on the street and on the farm, which only they can provide." Historically, he said, the Vancouver Farmer's Market has always been vendor-driven.

Surprisingly, the memo from the board says a recent survey of more than 100 vendors found that 65 percent favor a "community market" while 35 percent want a "vendor only run market."

"We have no plans to add more community seats at this time, but we do plan to fill the open community seats that are already in place," the memo concludes.

Space favoritism was another matter that came up on April 25. Boldt denied it and said moving one vendor starts a domino effect that hits many more. "If I move one, I have to move 20 people," he said.

There are farmers markets where board members who are also vendors must "go to the back of the line" when it comes to allocating space for vendor stalls -- in order to eliminate any hint of favoritism -- but the Vancouver Farmer's Market has never done that, Boldt said.

Gigantic economy

A dozen complainants at a board meeting is unprecedented, several said. "Everyone here has asked for a balanced board. We should give them one," said board member Rachel Reister of Reister Farms, Washougal, as the meeting wound down.

The memo to vendors says: "As a board, we have decided the best course of action is to … fill both the vendor and community seats on our board and bring our board back to full capacity."

Boldt -- who earlier this year won the Fort Vancouver National Trust's 2013 General George C. Marshall Public Leadership Award -- said he thought moving slowly to fill board positions, while controversial, made some sense. "The thinking was, let's bring some people on with nonprofit experience, board experience, financial experience," he said. "Board positions are important. Let's not make hasty or emotional decisions about filling them."

Boldt stressed that the market brings in 12,000 to 15,000 visitors every weekend -- more when it's "really busy" -- and he hopes vendors, members and customers will keep in mind its overall aim: good local produce and products, and good times for downtown Vancouver.

"This really is a gigantic economy," Boldt said. "The vendors take in over $1 million per year. It's too bad about this board stuff, but I don't want people to forget what we are all about."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.