Turlock farmers market operators walk away from bidding war

Emotions run high at Turlock City Council meeting

A contentious Turlock City Council meeting on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, left the city council voting 4-1 in favor of having the nonprofit and for-profit farmers markets work out a way to colloborate. (Garth Stapley/gstapley@modbee.com)
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A contentious Turlock City Council meeting on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, left the city council voting 4-1 in favor of having the nonprofit and for-profit farmers markets work out a way to colloborate. (Garth Stapley/gstapley@modbee.com)

After a contentious meeting stretching nearly five hours, city leaders voted 4-1 to encourage contenders for the Turlock farmers market to collaborate instead of fighting, but supporters of existing nonprofit management said they want no part of the for-profit proposal.

The nonprofit Turlock Certified Farmers Market made clear just before the 10:50 p.m. Tuesday vote that they would withdraw their bid if the City Council were to ignore their plea to continue running the event as they have for six years. But the council majority pushed ahead, essentially handing for-profit rival Peter Cipponeri a default victory.

Councilman Steven Nascimento sided with the nonprofit group but was outvoted by Mayor Gary Soiseth and council members Amy Bublak, Bill DeHart and Matthew Jacob.

Nascimento begged the nonprofit’s leaders to reconsider. But they said their board had voted to walk away rather than pretend to find common ground with a politically connected opponent they described as striving to cut them off at the knees.

Four vendors – Resendiz Family Fruit Barn, Soaps by Hailey, Packwood Farms and 5 Kings Cattle – vowed during the lengthy public comment portion to leave the Turlock market if it were turned over to Cipponeri, 24, whose family has sold produce at the street event since its inception. Four other vendors said they would prefer the existing operators as well.

“If Cipponeri is in charge, we will not participate,” Resendiz employee Victor Herrera said.

The night was filled with acrimony, with some accusing Cipponeri of stealing an event they had worked hard to build from scratch.

“There are things you can’t see on a (bid), things like greed, spite and contributions to a mayor and council members who have the final say,” said resident Michelle Park.

Former mayor Brad Bates restated his belief that Soiseth should abstain from voting to avoid an ethical conflict. Soiseth’s political camp has received $14,400 from Cipponeri and his relatives, including $12,000 from father-in-law Matt Swanson, and Swanson’s companies spread another $12,000 among the four other council members as well.

Gerard Wellman, an assistant political science professor at Turlock’s California State University, Stanislaus, said the council had failed an “ethics smell test.”

“It’s clearly a pay-to-play scenario,” Bates said.

That made Soiseth bristle. “I’m not going to be bullied into stepping down,” he said, “when I do not have a legal conflict of interest.”

Although Cipponeri initially wanted to replace the six-month nonprofit market with a year-round for-profit one, he scaled back when downtown merchants said they prefer the shorter schedule.

Cipponeri, a Turlock grower, also offered to give City Hall $5,000 a year in “rent,” to benefit an unnamed community project. And he wants to recruit vendors bringing fresh produce from throughout the state, while the nonprofit had catered to local farmers.

“This is my passion, my love, my life,” he said to a standing-room-only crowd, most wearing yellow T-shirts in his support. The yellow shirts were scarce, however, among hundreds of people in two overflow rooms, lining the hallway outside and sitting on floors because the city had not provided nearly enough chairs for the throng – a point brought up periodically by the nonprofit’s supporters.

“Some are here because they’re fighting for what they love,” said Elizabeth Claes, president of the nonprofit board.

Cathy Doo said, “This is breaking my heart. We don’t like to see this kind of division and tearing each other apart with insults. This is a nice town.”

Bob Crawford, who plays music at the farmers market to raise money for charity, urged the council, “Do the right thing. Don’t give credence to a hostile takeover.”

Nascimento asked if Cipponeri would consider establishing a second farmers market elsewhere in Turlock. Cipponeri said that would “create a deeper divide.” When Soiseth asked if he could try getting along with the nonprofit, Cipponeri said “yes,” but nonprofit leaders declined.

“I’m kind of tired of this circus,” Claes said. “I think I’m done. … Congratulations, Peter; you get the market.”

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390