Chestertown Farmers Market manager Sabine Harvey submitted her resignation Saturday, Sept. 14, following a dispute with a vendor. As a result of the incident, the Chestertown Council unanimously voted to expel the vendor for disrespectful conduct toward a customer and Harvey.
Mayor Chris Cerino said the dispute arose because the vendor refused to accept tokens issued by the market to customers who want to use SNAP or WIC coupons. Harvey had launched a program to expand the market’s customer base by getting vendors to accept the tokens, which the vendors could exchange for their cash equivalent. When Harvey tried to persuade the vendor to change his mind, the discussion became heated, continuing after the market closed. Following the incident, Harvey recommended that the vendor be expelled for refusal to accept the tokens and inappropriate conduct toward the customer. The vendor’s name was not disclosed as this is an ongoing situation.
Cerino said the vendor had no prior transgressions, so he told Harvey to issue a letter of warning, which she did. However, he said, the vendor protested the decision, claiming that Harvey accused him of discriminating against the customer. The vendor said he had been at the market for 12 years without problems. He requested that town manager Bill Ingersoll serve as a mediator between the parties, as specified in the farmers market rules. Ingersoll began to gather the facts, but the process took too long to satisfy the vendor, who circulated Harvey’s warning letter to the other vendors in an effort to win their support.
Cerino said he then got emails from vendors on both sides of the issue, supporting Harvey or the other vendor. “I don’t want to manage the farmers market,” he said, adding that it was “really frustrating for me” to be called into the dispute. He said there are “a lot of big personalities” with different viewpoints on how the market should operate, recalling a meeting last year when vendors crowded into the council chamber to argue over proposed rule changes for the market. He said he anticipated a repeat of that episode at a future meeting.
According to Councilwoman Linda Kuiper, Harvey’s resignation came at the worst possible time, with funds not being collected at the market and families eligible for the food assistance tokens unable to pick them up. Kuiper said she was frustrated because the resignation threatened to undo eight years of progress, with an increased number of vendors and Harvey’s decision to bring the food assistance program to the market. Harvey had obtained a grant to help support the program, and when the grant funds were exhausted, set up a gofundme.com page to keep it going. Kuiper said Harvey felt that the town had not really supported her efforts. Kuiper said the resignation “upset me terribly,” calling the entire situation “inexcusable.” She said the town needs to explain to the families on the SNAP and WIC programs whether the market will continue to support them.
Ingersoll said there were two different issues to consider, the vendor’s refusal to accept tokens and his rudeness to the customer. He said the contract does not compel the vendors to accept the tokens, although most of them did, and the town would be “on shaky legal ground” to require it after the fact. He said the next contract should make that a requirement for vendors who want to participate in the market. He said that his ruling on that issue did not override Harvey’s decision to expel the vendor because of his behavior, but he said the council was free to overrule him.
Cerino said the vendors are “guests of the town,” since the market operates on town property, but some of them see participation in the market as “a god-given right.” He said he trusts Harvey, but there are always two sides to such disputes. He said the decision on how to respond to the incident with the vendor should be a united decision by the council. He said he expected the response to be “ugly either way,” because the vendor also has allies. “I don’t know why we can’t sell fruits and vegetables without any drama,” he said.
Councilman David Foster said the manager should have the authority to expel a vendor because of improper behavior. “I would be prepared to support her on that,” he said.
Ingersoll said he didn’t know if Harvey’s decision was valid if she has resigned, but that the council is the ultimate authority. He said the expulsion should be for a specific period of time. Kuiper said the end of the year would be an appropriate time, at which point the vendor could reapply for membership.
Kuiper said that she would volunteer to manage the market until a permanent replacement for Harvey can be found, on condition that the expulsion of the vendor is upheld. She said vendors should be required to display a sign if they don’t accept SNAP or WIC payments. She said as far as she knew, the expelled vendor was the only one who didn’t accept the payments. Also, she said, the council should support Harvey’s efforts to create a separate limited liability corporation with its own board of directors to oversee the market. She said it could be on the model of the Friends of the Dog Park, which has financed numerous improvements for that facility without cost to the town.
Ingersoll said a community member had contacted him to volunteer to help out with the market until a permanent manager could be appointed. He said he would put Kuiper in touch with the volunteer, who he said would be a real asset in helping her through the situation. “I wish Sabine would reconsider,” he said. He said other vendors would support her. He noted that when the council rewrote the rules for the market last year, it wanted to give the manager more power. However, he said, many of the vendors wanted fewer rules.
Harvey, who was not present at the meeting, said in an email to the Chestertown Spy that she would not reconsider her resignation. She wrote, “I resigned as market manager because I found myself in a situation that is way beyond anything I am even remotely comfortable with. The situation is a direct result of the organizational structure of the market. Most markets are run independently, with a manager that reports to a board. Our market is overseen by the Town Council, which means that political concerns can enter into decisions. Ultimately, the manager doesn’t have much actual authority to resolve problems. I think the best way forward for the Chestertown Market is to adopt a new framework. It should be managed not by the town, but by a group of people consisting of an independent board.”
Harvey is a Maryland Master Gardener who works as an Extension Program Assistant in the Kent County extension office of the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. She has also been the chair and a main organizing force behind Chestertown’s Tea Party for several years now.
[UPDATE: Jon Hanley wrote in an email to the Spy that he will be manning the SNAP/WIC booth at the market.]