More than two dozen folks -- several of whom broke meeting protocol by talking to council members and city staff -- showed up yesterday afternoon to hear the Transportation and Environment Committee tackle ... well, attempt to tackle how to regulate the neighborhood farmers markets that have popped up around the city. But after the committee discussed the issue for a full hour (in was only slated for 30 minutes) with three council members absent and the six remaining split on what to do about the recommendation, the meeting ended with the committee sending city staff back to the proverbial drawing board.
Council member Ron Natinsky called it "a stand-off," but for the vendors in the crowd, the inability of the committee to reach a consensus was seen as a victory of sorts, since it hadn't approved the recommendation put together by staffers. Those recommendations included permit fees that vendors and council members Delia Jasso and Carolyn Davis opposed because they viewed the amount to be excessive when compared to fees charged by surrounding communities.
Jasso recommended the city adopt a $25 permit fee instead of the proposed $125 for the "non-grower vendor permit," which is how much it costs vendors at the Dallas Farmers Market.
"We did do some research on what other markets are doing in and around Dallas," she said, before launching into a laundry list of neighboring cities -- such as Arlington, Coppell and Lewisville, to name a few -- that don't charge vendors for permits to sell non-hazardous foods. McKinney, she said, charges $20.
After a soft start with some rabbit-trail questions about community gardens (which also haven't been sorted out by City Hall), it was like someone flipped a switch, and Davis was making point after hot point. She ended up a crowd favorite earning at least two separate rounds of applause after she delivered a lengthy rebuke of the city itself for expecting more out of the neighborhood markets than the city expects from the Dallas Farmers Market.
"How dare us want them to get their house in order when ours isn't," she said, after rattling off a list of perceived problems like trash pickup, running water and permit policies. "Don't roll your eyes at me!" she said to city staff as she neared the end of her remarks. A woman sitting in the audience circled Davis's name on the briefing memorandum in approval.
Natinsky and Vonciel Hill expressed concerns that by charging a lower price, people would naturally choose to sell their goods at one of the neighborhood farmers markets instead of carting their wares downtown. They both also questioned if neighborhood markets are taking parking spaces away from other businesses. (Hill and Natinsky's concerns were so similar that Hill even made a joke of it, saying it was "unusual" for her to have so much in common with him.)
"I'm all for this, but somebody has to cover the costs," Natinsky said, addressing that even with the $125 fees, the city wouldn't make enough to cover the costs of implementing and enforcing all of the proposed recommendations. This includes the city becoming, as Natinsky called it "product police," charged with the task of ensuring that the goods sold at these markets are, in fact, locally produced.
Of course, the folks in the crowd have a better way to deal with not having enough cash to police the vendors.
"They just need to leave us the [eff] alone," said Christopher McEwan, owner of Tough Cookie Bakery. And his concerns were easy to understand. See, it's more than just about the fees. It's the amenities, stupid.
"They want us to pay the same as the people in downtown, but what do we get?" McEwan told us after the meeting. "We don't get the covered sheds like they do downtown, and we don't get the marketing that the city puts toward the [Dallas] Farmers Market."
Bruce Bagelman, who owns the Green Spot and is one of the organizers of the White Rock Local Market, told us he's happy that the committee failed to approve the staff recommendations. "The recommendations go far beyond what is needed," he said.
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Michael Weinstein of Dread Head Chef agreed. He said it's ridiculous to make vendors like him pay for more permits when he has already obtained all the necessary licensing, insurance, etc. needed to make his dessert chips and sweet salsas.
After the meeting, Jasso and assistant city manager Jill Jordan were swarmed with vendors -- farmers, bakers and lotion makers -- all wanting to voice their concerns.
Following her impromptu town-hall-style Q&A with those vendors who were in attendance, Jasso told us, "We are definitely going to have to go back to the drawing board."
And, she said, "Hopefully, when we come back, we can find something that is amenable for both sides."