Energetic Mayor Gary Soiseth – a man on the move, by all appearances – has managed to anger an apparently broad sector of the community in love with its farmers market.
People outside Turlock might be impressed by his meteoric rise. By age 30, Soiseth had earned two college degrees, spent four years advising farmers in Afghanistan, worked at the White House and taken the helm of Stanislaus County’s increasingly vibrant, second-largest city.
Now 31, Soiseth is all over City Hall press releases, including those having more to do with enforcing city policy than setting it. In December, his Salvation Army bell-ringing team humbled others, gathering more than the combined total of those headed by Mayors Garrad Marsh of Modesto and Richard O’Brien of Riverbank.
Three weeks ago, The Modesto Bee’s Washington, D.C., bureau observed Soiseth’s “precocious knack for networking” at the U.S. Conference of Mayors. On the same trip, he was celebrated at Georgetown University, where he had earned a master’s in public policy, appearing at its HIPPSter speaking series under the banner of “The Making of a Mayor.” A few days later, at Soiseth’s state of the city speech, former Turlock Mayor Curt Andre gushed that he had “prayed (Soiseth) would be the best mayor ever. God answers prayers.”
I hit the jackpot, being mayor of my town. I love Turlock. That’s where I’m focused. Gary Soiseth, Turlock mayor
Soiseth grows almonds and also works as a regulatory adviser to the Modesto Irrigation District, earning $113,000 a year. He previously taught an international relations course at Turlock’s California State University, Stanislaus, where he established a Mayor’s Award for Public Policy Research scholarship, funded by Soiseth donating his mayor’s salary of $6,000 a year.
Many in Turlock are pleased with their fresh-faced mayor, who is 26 years younger than the average age of mayors in the county’s nine cities. Others, not so much – especially those who fear that Soiseth is enabling a political donor with a for-profit vision to wrest control of the beloved nonprofit farmers market from those who labored six years to build it up.
“He’s the kind of person who really likes the hero image. He really wants to be out there,” said Jeani Ferrari, a board member of the nonprofit group. “But this nightmare could have been avoided with good leadership.”
The controversy arose when 23-year-old farmer Peter Cipponeri, whose extended family has provided a quarter of Soiseth’s political funding, submitted a request at City Hall for a street-closure permit – for the same day and same time that the existing nonprofit market operates, in the same spot. The appearance of a for-profit competitor seemed to catch everyone by surprise, turning to shock when news spread that the nonprofit group had no such permit.
Why would anyone develop an event in the city of Turlock if they know if they build it up then someone can just come and take it over?
Steven Nascimento, Turlock councilman
A parade of supporters proclaimed undying devotion to the nonprofit farmers market before the City Council in December. On a 4-1 vote, the council declined to back the current operation, in essence saying, “Let the competition begin,” with the next round before the council scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 20.
A social media campaign began in earnest, drawing numerous Facebook comments and letters to the editor and more than 400 supporters to a lobbying website. Some said the turn of events smells of politics.
“The existing farmers market has worked real, real hard to put out a good product, and now they’re getting slammed in the face by city government, which all of a sudden is changing the rules,” Larry Rumbeck said. “Some people have the feeling that political favors are being repaid.”
A Bee review shows that Cipponeri’s Freestone Properties contributed $250 to Soiseth’s mayoral campaign in August 2014, and he and his wife gave $650 the following June. His father, Sebastian Cipponeri – a Turlock farmers market vendor with an enduring fruit stand on Geer Road – donated $1,500 in September 2014. Companies associated with Peter Cipponeri’s father-in-law, well-known Turlock businessman and philanthropist Matt Swanson – Associated Feed and Prospector LLC – have contributed $12,000 to Soiseth.
$14,400 Political contributions to Mayor Gary Soiseth from Peter Cipponeri and entities associated with his extended family
$10,300 Political contributions from Matt Swanson’s companies, Associated Feed and Prospector LLC, spread among the four other council members
Soiseth took $3,400 more from other people associated with Brownstone Equities, another company listing Swanson as its president.
Swanson did not respond to requests for comment.
Mayor: I didn’t violate campaign pledge
Soiseth announced in his 2014 campaign that he would accept contributions of no more than $1,500 from individuals and $3,000 from businesses. In a recent interview, the mayor said he did not violate self-imposed limits because he sees Swanson’s companies as separate entities and because the donations were made for separate campaigns; half came after his election, although he hasn’t disclosed his next political move.
Although Peter Cipponeri works with his parents, he said he knew nothing of their donations to Soiseth, or his father-in-law’s, and said he finds offensive any suggestion that he or they tried to buy influence with the mayor. Soiseth said his door is open to anyone regardless of campaign support, noting he accepted money from – and met to talk about the market flap with – nonprofit supporters, including Ferrari.
“(Donors) have no more access to me than those who have not (donated),” Soiseth said.
Other than Peter Cipponeri’s wife, Maia, no family members are involved, he said, in their newly formed Golden State Farmers Market Association, the entity they have used in attempts to acquire events established by others. They have already succeeded twice: in nearby Hughson and in Carmel.
The Hughson City Council picked Cipponeri on Jan. 25 over Derek Griffin, who manages the Turlock market but sought the Hughson job on his own.
“We thought Peter Cipponeri’s group had the best chance to bring in the community, and that’s what we’re looking for – to bring life downtown,” said development director Jaylen French.
Jerry Lami, who created Carmel’s farmers market and nurtured it for two years, said losing the contract to Cipponeri – a Carmel vendor – “hurt me and my pride. But I don’t know if it’s his fault as much as the city’s.”
Lami had signed another Valley vendor, Riverbank’s Cobblestone Bakery, to a 2014 contract in May of that year, but Carmel leaders two months later agreed to give preference to local merchants. Lami said he was instructed to dismiss Cobblestone, whose owner sued the city, claiming discrimination.
“That didn’t sit well with the city, so the city started looking for a way to get rid of me,” Lami said.
Contender shares dream
Cipponeri’s ideas for Turlock include expanding the farmers market from six months to year-round, similar to one in Merced. He envisions more special events, such as hosting local chefs. Although Hughson will pay him $20,000 to build its fledgling farmers market, Cipponeri said he would give Turlock a cut of his profit – something the nonprofit group never has. And Cipponeri would invite vendors from all over California, he said.
“They don’t exclude me from going over there (to the coast); why would we exclude them?” he said.
Obtaining several farmers markets would give his association clout, with “more vendors, more marketing and more purchasing power,” Cipponeri said.
Cipponeri is wounded by criticism from fans of current operators, he said, especially that directed at his parents. “We’re not a huge commercial bully farm,” he said.
I’m a farm boy from the country, and I’m getting painted as this big business guy.
Peter Cipponeri, Golden State Farmers Market Association
The Cipponeris say “sip” as opposed to others with the same spelling who say “chip.” The Hughson and Carmel bids cited the family’s history of four generations farming near Modesto, Empire and Turlock, with huge clients such as Dole and Seneca as well as selling at street markets for six decades. Sebastian Cipponeri farms about 800 acres, the Carmel proposal said; Peter Cipponeri works his own 9-acre plot.
Elizabeth Claes, board president of the Turlock Certified Farmers Market, said her group tries to discourage well-meaning supporters from demonizing Cipponeri.
The nonprofit event had done well in its first five years, building enough of a following to move from Friday to Saturday mornings in 2015. It also changed location, from Broadway Avenue to Main Street, and Peter Cipponeri did not like his family’s assigned location in the new setup, Claes said; soon after, then-City Manager Roy Wasden started asking questions, Claes and Ferrari said.
“I asked the mayor, ‘I don’t understand why you sent the city manager to talk about placement of booths. We have protocol and everything set up to address that; we don’t need the city manager telling us these things,’ ” said Ferrari, a neighbor of Peter Cipponeri. “The mayor said, ‘These are city streets, so I sent the city manager.’ ”
Soiseth denied that account. “I don’t have any information as to why the city manager talked to Derek,” the mayor said. “People want to say a lot of different things about my involvement.”
Mayor denies guiding for-profit competitor
Soiseth also said he did not coach Cipponeri regarding the street-closure permit, leading to the council’s December decision to ask for bids from anyone interested in running a Turlock farmers market. Ferrari, however, said the mayor invited her to coffee in November and spent “40 minutes telling me that this young man (Cipponeri) had crossed his t’s and dotted his i’s and would take the farmers market to a new level.
“I was stunned,” Ferrari continued. “We meet (as a board) at City Hall once a month. A representative from the city sits in our meetings. Why, if the mayor was not happy or wanted to take it to a new level, didn’t he come in and say, ‘You’re doing well, but have you ever thought about these things?’ Or he could have sent his representative to discuss it with us. But he never did.”
I’d like to keep the downtown market the way it is. It’s nice to have something homey, like an old pair of slippers.
Larry Rumbeck, Turlock
Soiseth’s story is quite different. If he had not intervened, Cipponeri might have obtained his street-closure permit by simple virtue of asking first, Soiseth said.
“He played by the rules and would have outright received the ability to close the farmers market,” the mayor said. “I saw that as bad policy and said we should make it a fair, equal and transparent process. In reality, I saved them.”
Ferrari said: “It’s hard to believe our mayor, our leader, wouldn’t say to this young man, ‘There’s already a farmers market there on that day,’ and encourage him to find another place. There was a lack of common sense and leadership on the part of the mayor.”
Change at the top can be difficult as people adjust to new leadership styles, and Soiseth definitely has his own style.
After the transition from former Mayor John Lazar to Soiseth, the Turlock Chamber of Commerce came under scrutiny for its management of the Turlock Convention and Visitors Bureau. The city ended the arrangement in May and longtime Chief Executive Officer Sharon Silva left the chamber in August. Ongoing negotiations to settle differences are expected to be resolved soon, said the chamber’s Turlock attorney, Michael Warda.
The chamber had endorsed Soiseth’s opponent, Mike Brem.
“I was honored to have an opportunity to work with a team of people who had the interests of the community at heart,” Silva said, citing Lazar and Wasden, “and not an interest of self-service.”
Soiseth’s election accelerates Wasden’s departure
Wasden said he initially intended to retire in June, but moved the date up to December, a year after Soiseth came on the scene.
“The challenge of change is part of the equation,” Wasden acknowledged, declining to elaborate. “Mayor Soiseth is a good man who is working hard and wants the best for Turlock.”
Former fire Chief Tim Lohman, who put 35 years into the Fire Department, also left after Soiseth’s arrival and now manages a nut-hulling operation 10 miles from town. Asked if the mayoral change had anything to do with his departure, Lohman paused, then said, “I just don’t want to comment about any of that.”
Lazar’s wife helped create a logo for the nonprofit farmers market and was a founding board member. Of Soiseth, Lazar said, “I think he’s very anxious and young. He wants to go places fast with city government, and my experience is it’s a slow-moving process. You try to educate and move the community forward together on issues that matter. If there is a lot of disagreement or dissension, you try to take it slower and be inclusive.
“It takes time,” Lazar continued. “He’s developing, and he’s going to need to mature and grow. I think most people want to see the mayor succeed. I wish him well.”
As for the farmers market, Lazar said he supports the current operation, and Wasden said: “Success brings it own set of problems. Because the market is working so well, there is interest in others being part of that success.”
Councilman Steven Nascimento, who stood alone in defending the nonprofit in the December vote, said, “They started from nothing and it’s obvious they’ve done a fantastic job.”
Bidding process up for vote Saturday
The council’s vote led the city’s staff to develop a request for proposals from competing market managers for a three-year deal. The council is expected to meet at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20, in the council chamber at 156 S. Broadway, to consider adopting the document to guide those interested in bidding.
“If I was the city, and the lease was up and somebody offers a better deal, don’t I have an obligation to look at it?” Warda asked.
Are we required to do business with people just because they did it the year before? I would think the city is forced to consider (a competitor’s offer).
Michael Warda, Turlock attorney
Soiseth said he scheduled the special council meeting on a Saturday to accommodate people most likely to attend a Saturday market.
The nonprofit’s supporters saw bias in an initial request for proposals draft because it called for “a mix of local and regional farmers,” aligning with Cipponeri’s vision while the nonprofit group draws growers from within only 50 miles. The first draft also said the city prefers “the longest market operation period possible,” seen as another nod to Cipponeri, who wants a year-round operation while the nonprofit group likes delivering fresh produce in the May-to-October growing season. Lastly, the draft asked bidders what the city’s financial cut might be in compensation for using public streets, and warned that “such compensation or payment shall be a component of the selection criteria.”
The nonprofit appears to have made inroads, however, because a revised version removed the reference to “regional farmers.” Staff members also inserted a requirement that proposers list “the number of years operator has been performing similar services and (his or her) most recent projects.”
Modesto had a similar issue in 2010, when a competitor to the long-established Modesto Certified Farmers Market opened six blocks away. The new one didn’t last.
I think there is room for collaboration to make this a very strong farmers market. I wish they would come together with one strong proposal, not one party over another. I want the city of Turlock to win.
Gary Soiseth, mayor, Turlock
Soiseth said he would prefer that the nonprofit group and Cipponeri drop swords and become partners. “They both want the same thing,” he said. “I encourage them to get together and figure it out.”
Cipponeri is fine with that idea, as long as he is in charge and making money. He would ask nonprofit board members to help him, he said.
“I’m not looking to dismantle (the farmers market),” he said. “I’m looking to add and inject new ideas.
“The fact they’re fighting so hard, I have to believe they care about our community,” Cipponeri continued. “With this much fight on both sides, if we could channel it in a positive direction, we could make something really cool.”
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390