The nonprofit organization running the city’s farmers market for six years officially withdrew Monday, ending the prospect of another showdown with for-profit bidder Peter Cipponeri at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Both sides said they stood ready to meet, but were snubbed by the other.
Last week’s marathon session ended with leaders of the Turlock Certified Farmers Market saying they would walk away rather than collaborate with Cipponeri, whose family has sold produce at the street event since its inception. But the matter resurfaced when city staff late last week released an agenda for this week’s council meeting saying the council could choose either bid on Tuesday.
City Hall also left the door open to a combined proposal, but none emerged, although Cipponeri said he envisions “an arrangement where TCFM participates by managing the existing vendors and (I manage) the produce. Expansion of produce variety and quantity has always been my priority.”
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Elizabeth Claes, president of the nonprofit’s board, said, “It was extremely insulting that they chose to ignore all our hard work and say, ‘Just go back in and write another (bid) together.’ ”
Near the close of a testy hearing lasting almost five hours last week, the City Council majority suggested that a farmers market expert – who had testified – preside over mediation. The expert, Gail Hayden, had not mentioned her involvement in lengthy civil lawsuits between her nonprofit organization, California Farmers Market Association, and Cipponeri’s parents, which appears to have been recently resolved.
Four years ago, a confrontation in Mountain View led to Cipponeri’s two-week suspension from 14 Bay Area markets run by Hayden’s group. He also was placed on 90 days’ probation and the family business was fined $150. And he had another altercation with the same management group at a Diablo Valley market in 2013, according to Contra Costa Superior Court documents.
The Turlock Certified Farmers Market initially balked at the idea of Hayden sorting out the nonprofit’s differences with Cipponeri, but ultimately agreed to give it a try. However, Cipponeri “decided not to meet for reasons unknown to us,” says the nonprofit’s withdrawal letter, dated and delivered to City Hall on Monday, and the nonprofit ultimately decided against trying to find common ground.
In a brief interview Monday, Cipponeri said, “That’s not true.”
He released a statement saying he had been scheduled to meet Thursday with the nonprofit’s market manager, who canceled, saying that “the board members did not want him to meet with me.” Cipponeri further said Hayden declined to meet with him if he were accompanied by a legal representative, and he provided copies of text messages appearing to confirm that account.
“I personally have called and tried to meet with the TCFM board members,” Cipponeri said in the statement, “and I have not received any response. I have heard there is no interest as long as I am involved.”
Cipponeri’s camp “is not a group of people I want to work with,” Claes said. “We’re not sure Peter, unless he changed, would be a good partner in an endeavor like this.”
Cipponeri, 24, established the Golden State Farmers’ Markets Association with his wife, Maia, and a vision of consolidating management of several events throughout California. They took over a farmers market started by another group in Carmel-by-the-Sea last year and recently won agreements to operate others in Hughson and Copperopolis, starting in a few weeks.
The Turlock market will welcome vendors from across California, Peter Cipponeri has said, and he has pledged to pay City Hall $5,000 annual “rent” for use of a city street. The farmers market is scheduled to run on Main Street from May 7 to Oct. 29.
His critics noted that Cipponeri’s family members – principally his father-in-law, businessman Matt Swanson – have given $14,400 to Mayor Gary Soiseth’s political campaigns, and Swanson has spread another $10,000 among the four other council members.
Councilman Steven Nascimento, whose 2014 proposal for restrictions on council votes affecting major donors failed, stood alone in support of nonprofit operators last week.
In a statement, Soiseth said he was disappointed but holds out hope that city staff can help the competitors reconcile, a possible outcome left open by city officials.
That does not seem likely.
“Why should a small group of volunteers have to teach this boy to behave correctly in public?” Claes said Monday. “It just doesn’t make sense. We’ve decided to get on with our lives.
“In my Feb. 20 speech, I let them know that if at any point this ceased to make sense, I would leave,” she continued, referring to a meeting where the council adopted the bidding process. “I don’t know if they believed me. Now they do.”
Cipponeri said he would continue reaching out to the nonprofit board.
Tuesday’s council meeting starts at 6 p.m. in the second-floor chamber at City Hall, 156 S. Broadway Ave., Turlock.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390