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Council debate jeopardizes future of farmers' market

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Posted: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 1:00 pm

SOUTH PORTLAND – A quest to help promote the South Portland Farmers Market has turned into a City Council debate on where the market should live, creating hurt feelings, accusations of back-room dealings, and the suggestion that the fledgling farmstand may not live to see its second year.

The City Council is scheduled to workshop the issue April 23, when proposals are expected to include moving the market to Hinckley Drive, next to Mill Creek Park, or leaving it at its present location at Thomas Knight Park, albeit off the park cobblestones and on Waterman Drive.

The latter plan also includes a request for council permission to place a 4-by-8-foot sign on Broadway advertising the Thursday afternoon market.

The sign concept was first proffered at a Feb. 27 workshop by Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis, who championed creation of the market during her term as mayor. The sign met stiff opposition, particularly from first-year Councilor Jerry Jalbert, who said it could be seen as municipal favoritism for food booths over other brick-and-mortar grocery stores in the Knightville District.

The debate has worn on now for two months, largely out of the public eye, and market manager Caitlin Jordan said the very existence of the farmers market is in jeopardy. Even if consensus is reached April 23, the council will not be able to act until its next official meeting, set for May 7. Posting requirements to close either street means the market will miss its planned May 10 opening. Even that, said Jordan, is too late a date for some in her circle.

“I had 20 vendors, but I’ve lost three because of all the back-and-forth with the council,” she said last week. “On top of that, I’ve had five or six new applications withdrawn.”

Jordan claims that at least some of those defections have as much to do with what had been called uncivil emails sent to and from the market’s ad hoc advisory committee in the past several weeks as it does with scheduling and logistical issues.

De Angelis and Mayor Patti Smith have both confirmed the nature of those emails, with De Angelis saying she “feels horrible” at the “hurtful” way she’s been portrayed in some of them.

The Current filed on April 11 a request for those emails under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. The emails were unavailable for review as of the Tuesday deadline for this week’s issue of the Current.

Smith, who has seen the emails, acknowledged that feelings have been hurt on all sides.

“That’s the unfortunate fallout of the situation,” she said on Friday. “I am always disappointed when the level or type of communication is not a productive one. It happens. People get emotionally attached, they lose focus and it’s hard for them, I think, to see other perspectives.”

Those perspectives date back to initial approval of the market one year ago. At that time, Jordan said, the market vendors voiced a strong preference for the Hinckley Drive site, based on a belief that Thomas Knight Park was too far off the beaten path. That was shot down, in part, because of parking issues near Mill Creek businesses, a belief that the Mill Pond ducks would create an issue, and the fact that setting up shop in Thomas Knight Park would require fewer updates to existing ordinances.

Jalbert said that, being new to the council, he was not aware when he asked Jordan at the annual Rotary Club dinner about Hinckley Drive as a possible alternative, which, he thought, would end the divide over the proposed Broadway sign. That conversation, said Jalbert, “took all of two minutes,” and he rejects the idea that he meant to conspire with Jordan against what the council then had on the table, or to perform an end run on the market advisory committee, chaired by De Angelis.

For her part, De Angelis said her only concern is that Jalbert then began floating the idea to other councilors, when Jordan gave her enthusiastic assent to the move, in part because of poor foot traffic last season. 

“Whether it’s one place or the other is neither here nor there,” De Angelis said. “It’s that none of this was ever brought to the advisory committee for consideration.”

Jalbert and Jordan both say they were unaware they needed an approval from the advisory group, which Jordan claims is “mostly hand-picked” by De Angelis and thus supports the Thomas Knight Park location. Meanwhile, Jalbert rejects De Angelis’ claim that he circumvented the public process to line up support from his peers for the Hinckley Drive alternative. Although he admits to informally polling other councilors on the topic, Jalbert cites Maine’s Right-to-Know-Law, claiming he’s within his rights to talk with other members of the council, so long as three or more of them are not in on the same conversation at the same time.

“The notion that this was back-door politics and the level that this issue has raised to is disheartening,” said Jordan, adding that she only agreed to De Angelis’ sign request after being told there would be no action on her request to reconsider Hinckley Drive, made long before Jalbert intervened.

“I was told it absolutely would not happen no matter what,” she said.

Smith also denies claims that she pushed back consideration of Jalbert’s proposal in order to break momentum for a site change.

Jalbert said he expected an April 4 workshop, but that did not happen, only because, Smith said, the annual budget took precedence. She also said that, given the lesson of public reaction to recent parking changes planned for Ocean Street, the workshop had to be put off in order to give “all stakeholders” time to regroup.

“Moving the location put us back to square 1,” Smith said. “Although it looks like a delay, we’ve had to scramble because the sign turned out to not be an easy slam dunk. I hope everyone understands that we have to do our due process.”

That said, Smith did seem to side with De Angelis’ claim that Jalbert worked the issue with too much vigor outside of public view.

“There may be something to that, which is just understanding due process of how we operate as a City Council,” she said. “What we try to strive for, the very point of us working as public civic leaders, is that our deliberations are public and transparent.”

Smith downplayed the seeming discontent on all sides of the farmers market issue, chalking most of the debate up to “growing pains.”

Although Jalbert, Jordan, De Angelis and Smith all intimate harsh words have been exchanged, even while none are willing to quote directly from the exchanges, Smith said that’s hardly what matters.

“I know that not everyone might have every piece of information that I might have, but the bottom line is that we are going to discuss potentially moving the location of the market on the 23rd,” she said. “That’s where people want to be if they have in interest in the issue.”

More to the point, Smith added, “I know that absolutely everyone wants it to succeed.”

Welcome to the discussion.