If there’s one point that’s generally agreed on, it’s this: the Puyallup Farmers’ Market is a beloved community event that stretches beyond city limits.
The question of who should run the popular market has sparked a contentious debate within the city.
A majority of Puyallup City Council has voted to put operation of the market and two other events — the Santa Parade and Meeker Days Festival — out to bid.
Supporters say a request for proposal (RFP) process is about doing what’s best for city taxpayers by making the events the best that they can be through fair competition.
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“I think it’s fair to have a fair and transparent RFP process,” said Councilwoman Cynthia Jacobsen in an interview on Tuesday. Jacobsen initially proposed the bidding process in November.
Many people disagree with the decision.
In the past few months, dozens have shown up at City Council meetings, most recently donning, “I Support the Puyallup Main Street Association,” buttons and speaking during citizen comments.
The Puyallup Farmers’ Market, the Meeker Days Festival and Santa Parade have historically been operated by PMSA, a local nonprofit dedicated to the revitalization of the city’s downtown core. PMSA is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
The Farmers’ Market, which is in its 37th year this year, brings thousands of visitors to the city each summer, with vendors from across the state selling products from fruits and veggies to homemade bird houses. The 2019 market starts on April 20 and ends in October and is held at Pioneer Park in Puyallup.
Opponents of the RFP process say the city does not own the three events and that a for-profit entity could win the RFP, preventing profits from benefiting the city. The new bidding process also singles out the events of only the nonprofit PMSA, they said.
“For some reason, this year, something changed,” PMSA executive director Kerry Yanasak said in comments to City Council on Jan. 29. “We are being attacked.”
In a heated council meeting on Feb. 26, Councilwoman Robin Farris made a proposed addition to the agenda to halt the RFP process before it closed Thursday. The process should be stopped, Farris said, due to the volume of community support shown for PMSA and potential litigation, among other things.
“There is overwhelming community support for Main Street,” Farris said at the meeting. “I think at the end of the day, we work for the citizens, and we need to listen to what they have to say.”
The proposal failed 4-3, allowing the RFP process to continue. As of Feb. 28, there were two proposals submitted, one from PMSA and one from Foster’s Creative, an events promotion company based in Tacoma.
During citizen comments on Feb. 26, accusations flew.
Yanasak said the RFP process could be “retribution” for PMSA removing Councilman Dean Johnson as city liaison in March 2018. He said Jacobsen told him in November that she brought the RFP process forward on behalf of Johnson.
“I’m disgusted. This room is full of people that are disgusted and quite disappointed at this entire process,” Yanasak told the City Council. “Someone told me, ‘Kerry, in your position, don’t go after the Council.’ Well you know what? You’re coming after us, and we don’t like it.”
Jacobsen denies that the RFP process is retribution.
“Dean certainly did not come forward and say, ‘Let’s get retribution (on Main Street),’” she said.
When The Herald asked Johnson if he asked Jacobsen to bring the RFP process forward, he said, “Absolutely not.”
“My decision to support the RFP process was not based on any form of retribution but rather to make sure that our citizens are experiencing the very best signature events through a transparent public process that brings to light the very best vision and event results for all of our citizens to enjoy,” Johnson told The Herald through email.
Council members Jim Kastama and Tom Swanson, who also voted in support of the RFP process, held firm on Feb. 26 that enabling a RFP process protects Puyallup citizens with transparent event proposals.
“Right now, to have nebulous contracts or partnerships that are out there based on feelings is really not doing merit on the taxpayers in Puyallup,” Kastama said. “... They’re big community events. And we want them to be the best they possibly can.”
‘WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING TO DO?’
City records requested by The Puyallup Herald shows the topic of PMSA’s contract with the city surfaced as far back as March 2018.
In February 2018, Yanasak was chosen as the interim executive director by the PMSA board of directors. At the time, PMSA was lacking a presence in the community, Yanasak said.
PMSA board president Chris Kucklick told The Herald that Yanasak’s role was to get that downtown presence back.
“The focus was trying to get rolling and get going again,” Kucklick said.
Part of that had to do with filling vacancies on the nonprofit’s board of directors. But there was disagreement on how to do it.
Johnson, who served as the liaison between PMSA and the city at the time, asked Yanasak to discuss how to legally fill the positions at the group’s next meeting, according to email exchanges in February 2018. Johnson offered names of people interested in serving on the board and included them in the emails. He also asked an attorney to speak at the meeting regarding “possible legal action” from the termination of a former PMSA executive director.
“With all the scrutiny that our organization is under, it is imperative and in our best interest to operate within the disciplined guidelines found in our by-laws so as not to jeopardize the organization’s standing within our community,” Johnson wrote in a Feb. 27 email to Kucklick.
Yanasak told Johnson it was “premature” to discuss any legal action and asked Johnson to not include non-board members on PMSA email exchanges. Johnson had addressed his Feb. 27 email to various business owners not on the PMSA board.
Johnson responded that he was “not absolutely sure” who was a board member at the time and asked for a list.
“Dean. What are you looking to do here?” wrote Yanasak in an email dated Feb. 28, 2018. “... If you are uncomfortable with something I am doing then contact the board President. What is it you are trying to communicate that apparently is not being communicated to your satisfaction?”
Yanasak and Kucklick both told The Herald that the board wasn’t interested in moving forward with some people suggested by Johnson and that a city liaison doesn’t typically make decisions with the board. Mostly, they serve as a mouthpiece for the city without any voting rights.
Johnson told The Herald the people he suggested for the board all wanted what was “best for the organization.”
Johnson and Kucklick scheduled an in-person meeting on March 3, 2018 to discuss PMSA. Two days later, on March 5, 2018, Kucklick emailed Mayor John Palmer asking to remove Johnson as city liaison.
“The Puyallup Main Street Association would like to thank Councilmember Dean Johnson for his service to the PMSA board,” Kucklick wrote. “Effective March 5, 2017, the Puyallup Main Street Association would like to request a new liaison to be appointed.”
Palmer asked City Manager Kevin Yamamoto for a new liaison, but one has not yet been appointed.
One week later, on March 12, 2018, Jacobsen sent an email to Assistant City Manager Steve Kirkelie inquiring about a contract with PMSA.
“Do we have a contract with the Main Street Association for the Farmer’s Market and/or Meeker days? If we do, when was it signed and does it need renewal? Thanks. I do not really know about the situation, but the question of whether or not we have an agreement with them has come up,” Jacobsen wrote in the email.
When asked about the timing of the email, Jacobsen told The Herald she couldn’t exactly remember how the topic came up, but that it’s possible she was following up on questions from a constituent or that Johnson “could have mentioned it.” Johnson is often a swing vote on city issues.
Yamamoto responded to Jacobsen, explaining that PMSA obtains a special events permit and license agreements to put on various events.
The topic resurfaced in October as Council prepared for budget discussions. On Nov. 6, the RFP process was proposed and eventually passed 4-3 on Nov. 27. Council members Jacobsen, Johnson, Kastama and Swanson voted for the proposal. Palmer, Farris and Councilwoman Julie Door voted against.
WILL EVENTS BE AFFECTED?
No changes are expected this year as PMSA will continue to manage the 2019 Farmers’ Market, Santa Parade and Meeker Days events.
In 2020, there could be changes, depending on what group is awarded the RFP. Organizations that submitted RFPs are expected to present to the City Council in March.
For Kucklick, it only makes sense that PMSA would put on the events.
“We already have the background, the infrastructure, the hardware, the equipment that goes with it,” he said.
So far this year, more than 200 vendors have signed up for the Puyallup Farmers’ Market. That’s expected to reach more than 300 by the end of the season, said PMSA market manager Patty Villa. Farmers’ Market vendors generally make close to $2 million in sales total.
Some vendors have stepped forward to voice their concerns to council members over the RFP process.
Chris Chisholm manages Blue Sky Farm in Puyallup and is the executive director of Wolf Camp and the Conservation College, which provides wilderness camps for kids and adults. Chisholm has hosted booths at the Farmers’ Market since 2012. He said in an email to the council that PMSA has been professional and efficient in managing the Farmers’ Market.
“You need to help PMSA retain the excellent staff they now have,” he wrote. “Foster cooperation with them at this moment, and you will see downtown business blossom like never before.”
PMSA staff said profits from any events go toward revitalizing downtown Puyallup. In 2018, PMSA invested $5,000 in snowflake decorations downtown and installed rotating banners for streetlamps. This year, the nonprofit is investing $20,000 for a merchant benefit program that involves surveying businesses for what they’d like to see downtown.
“It seems funny that we’re almost kind of having to fight Puyallup to be able to serve Puyallup,” Kucklick said.