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Farmers' market application approved by split Council vote
TCFM supporters pack City Hall to oppose RFP process
farmers market RFP meeting pic
Turlock Certified Farmers' Market supporters fill the City Council chambers to overflowing during a special Saturday Council meeting held to consider approving the Request for Proposals document for operating a Turlock farmers' market. - photo by KRISTINA HACKER / The Journal

Saturday's marathon four-hour special City Council meeting saw Mayor Gary Soiseth trying to "fix the process" when it comes to the City dealing with competing requests to operate a downtown Turlock farmers' market and the over-capacity crowd in attendance saying over and over again, "if it isn't broken, don't fix it."

Despite the overwhelming opinion voiced by numerous members of the public on Saturday that the Request for Proposals process was not the appropriate way to proceed in dealing with two road closure requests for the same time and location to run a farmers' market, the Council made almost line-by-line edits of the RFP document.

"My hope was that the voice of the people who have loved and been a part of the farmers' market, from vendors to board members and volunteers, would have been listened to in their plea for a common sense solution. I'd really hoped that whatever that looked like would have made sense to the people who were there and the community. That didn't happen. It seemed like their pleas were ignored," said Turlock Certified Farmers' Market Board President Elizabeth Claes.

After hours of discussion, and many public speakers supporting the TCFM,  the RFP was put to a vote and for the first time on this issue there was a split decision by the Council.

Mayor Soiseth, Council members Matthew Jacob and Amy Bublak voted in favor of approving the RFP, while Council member Bill DeHart joined Council member Steven Nascimento in voting against the document's implementation.

Saturday's vote was a change of heart for DeHart, as he had previously voted in December in favor of the RFP process as a means to resolve the competing road closure issue. DeHart compared Saturday's meeting to the biblical story of King Solomon and his decision to solve the issue of two women claiming to be the mother of the same child by ordering the baby be cut in half.

"If we can't move forward together, it doesn't matter what the document says," said DeHart.

Councilman Nascimento has been against the RFP process from the beginning and asked again on Saturday for the Council to take a different path to resolve the issue of two competing road closure requests for the farmers' market.

"We made a mistake, and when you make a mistake, you fix it. I urge this council to reconsider their decision. This is not the appropriate process," he said.

In December, the City Council voted to implement a Request for Proposal process for a farmers’ market in Turlock. The Turlock Certified Farmers’ Market — a nonprofit organization made up of community volunteers —has operated the downtown market for the past six years and was required only to submit a Street Closure Request form to the City to be able to hold the seasonal, weekly event.

The process came before the Council following a Street Closure Request being filed with the City by Peter Cipperoni of Golden State Farmers' Market Association to operate a for-profit farmers' market in downtown Turlock at the same location and times that the current market was held on a year-round basis.

From the beginning, the TCFM board was confused why the City would decide to create a proposals process to hold the farmers' market, when a nonprofit organization made up of community volunteers worked for years to bring back a market to Turlock and has done so successfully for a number of years.

"What is the point of this RFP? Does it actually fix the road closure application process? What is the reason the RFP changes the relationship between the farmers' market  and the City government of one of partnership and support to one where the Council has 'sole and unfettered discretion' to choose the market in the image that it wants?" asked Claes of the Council during Saturday's meeting.

"Is this what the people sitting in this room, as well as the rest of the citizens of Turlock, should now expect of this Council when it is faced with an issue of process? That this Council will take sole and unfettered discretion to remove all voices except the Council's? And lest you say you are listening to these voices, I know these voices can be blocked and called spam. And I know these voices can be misconstrued in the newspaper. What is the intent of including in the RFP the requirement of keeping the same vendors from the 2015 season in the 2016 season? Am I to understand correctly that this RFP, as a solution to two road closure applications, the market will be at the same day, the same time, the same location, the same vendors and that the only thing this RFP does is give the Council the full power to decide who operates this market?"

Along with calling the RFP process into question, the Mayor's perceived conflict of interest regarding the issue was addressed by former Turlock mayor Brad Bates.

"Mayor Soiseth, in my opinion, has the reasonable possibility of conflict of interest now, faces the appearance of impropriety in the relationships between this issue and the major donors in his 2014 election campaign...There are five members, including the vice mayor, to do the City business. I don't understand why it is so important now for the mayor not to step down in an abundance of caution," said Bates referencing Cipponeri's father-in-law, Matt Swanson, being a major financial contributor to Soiseth's mayoral campaign.

Bates also asked if the Mayor had requested an opinion by the Fair Political Practices Commission on the possibility of a conflict of interest in this issue.

The Mayor responded to Bates' comments and questions by asking Interim City Manager Michael Cooke to review what the purpose of Saturday's meeting was according to the agenda.

Cipponeri did not speak at Saturday's public meeting, nor did any supporters of the GSFMA.

Despite pleas from the community and Councilman Nascimento to reconsider the RFP process altogether, Mayor Soiseth kept the meeting on track with the agenda item — which was discussing approval of the RFP document itself.

"Staff spent months researching surrounding cities and working with stakeholders to create a draft Request for Proposals. Saturday's discussion lost sight of the meeting's goal, which should've focused on reforming City Hall's system that allows events to operate in public spaces.

"Turlock promotes civic engagement and we want as many people to participate in the process as possible, which is why we placed this item on a Saturday afternoon agenda. I listened to the passionate comments and I'm now weighing options that will hopefully alleviate their concerns," said Soiseth.

The Council made a number of changes to the RFP document, including eliminating detailed components the City is looking for when selecting a market operator that were included in the original drafts and instead leaving the proposal open for outlining what the applicant's vision for a farmers' market will look like.

The Council also eliminated a section that asked applicants what compensation, reimbursement /cost recovery or other benefits would be paid to the City for the use of City property, and stating that such compensation would be a component of the selection criteria.

Following the majority vote of approval, the revised RFP was released to the public on Tuesday. The RFP process to operate a farmers' market in downtown Turlock is open to any individual or organization.

A mandatory pre-proposal meeting for applicants is set for March 4, with the closing date to submit proposals by 3 p.m. March 8.

The City Council is scheduled to review proposals and select a farmers' market operator at their March 15 meeting.