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Vashon Island Growers Association tightens its belt as revenues dip

Customers purchase greens at a recent Farmers Market at the Village Green. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Customers purchase greens at a recent Farmers Market at the Village Green.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

A stroll through the Village Green on a sunny Saturday is a peek into the bounty of Vashon Island’s farms and artisans. Plant starts share shelf space with fruit and flowers, while handcrafted candles, cutting boards and chocolates are displayed a few steps away.

The Vashon Farmers Market has become an institution on the Island since vendors began selling produce and wares at the Village Green 20 years ago and has grown steadily for the past five years — the period for which board members have numbers.

Last year, however, sales declined 7 percent. And now Vashon Island Growers Association (VIGA), which runs the market, is making some wholesale changes — searching for ways to better promote both the bustling Saturday gathering and its Wednesday market, which has far fewer customers. VIGA’s nine-member board also recently restructured the market manager position, its only paid position, lowering the contract’s annual pay and reducing the job’s responsibilities. VIGA board members will pick up some of the manager’s job responsibilities.

“There was growth, and now there’s not,” said VIGA president Lindsay Hart. “Money changes everything. So there’s a concern now. We have to as a board be aware of that, and make sure we’re fulfilling our fiduciary responsibilities.”

But the manager is the face of the farmers market, working on day-to-day operations, making sure the kinks of each market are straightened out and helping vendors in whatever way necessary. And some VIGA members are upset with the way the board informed 2009 market manager Ivan Weiss in December that his contract was up, that the position would entail fewer responsibilities and less cash in 2010, and that he was welcome to reapply for the position.

Sixteen VIGA members signed a petition stating that they want Weiss rehired as market manager. And Weiss, a former Seattle Times copyeditor, sent out a blistering e-mail to VIGA’s subscriber list about his abrupt departure, complaining about what he called his “shabby treatment” at the hands of the board.

Board members note that Weiss wasn’t, in fact, let go — his six-month contract simply concluded at the end of the year.

“All through the year we were worried because money was not coming in like we were hoping,” Hart said. “We realized that in December. We told him ahead of the contract ending that we were going to have to redo the contract for fewer duties and less money.”

But members who were surprised by how the end of Weiss’ contract was handled say this incident is one of several that have forced a wedge between some VIGA members and the VIGA board. A few market vendors say they feel a disconnect between them and the board, which is elected to represent the farmers, artisans and salespeople of VIGA.

“I guess there is a distance, because I don’t even know who (the board members) are,” said Paul Motoyoshi, who sells hot soup at the Vashon Farmers Market.

Hart became head of the board in November and said the board does what boards are supposed to do — make decisions on behalf of the nonprofit’s members. The board didn’t stray from procedures, she added: Weiss’ contract ended, the position needed some alteration so VIGA can stay afloat in 2010, and the former manager was invited to reapply.

Hart, who sells bronze work and etched glass at the farmers market, said she’s hoping whittling down the market manager position will help the budget situation at VIGA, which depends almost entirely on fees vendors pay for the ability to sell at the farmers market. VIGA is an all-volunteer organization, with the exception of the paid market manager.

“We want to return to the feeling of growth,” Hart said. “At a certain point, a board works together to make the best decision that they can for their membership.”

But Weiss said he felt forced out of the manager job and disrespected in the process. He doesn’t plan to reapply for the market manager position, which paid $14,000 in 2009 and will pay $10,000 in 2010. The job opening will be posted this month, Hart said.

The new slate of VIGA board members was elected in November, a month before Weiss’ contract was scheduled to expire. They had plenty of time to tell Weiss they were considering reducing the responsibilities of the market manager, he said, but didn’t do so. Instead, after the final farmers market of the year Dec. 12, Weiss received a letter about the conclusion of his contract and the way the position would be different in 2010.

Weiss, a longtime member of VIGA, believes a few members on the board had a personality clash with him and are using finances as an excuse to boot him from the market.

“If they were having a problem, don’t you think somebody would have told me?” he asked. “They didn’t do any of that until December. I can only conclude that they did it that way on purpose.”

Some of the vendors agree.

Vashon Winery owner Ron Irvine, who had nothing but praise for the way Weiss managed the market, said it was unusual Weiss and the VIGA membership weren’t included in conversations about the future of the market manager position.

“He’s devoted to making the market work,” Irvine said of Weiss.

Motoyoshi, meanwhile, said there are many VIGA members who are concerned with the lack of openness and involvement of the VIGA board with the general members.

“The decisions are being made without the decisions being transparent,” he said. “The people who are affected by the decisions are not consulted.”

Farmer Michelle Crawford of Pacific Potager concurred.

“The membership seems to want to communicate and contribute, but the board doesn’t seem to want to communicate back,” she said.

Hart responded that the board has tried hard to make its proceedings member-friendly, holding regular meetings and publicizing their dates and location. But farmers and artisans, many of whom hold down other jobs to help pay the bills, rarely show up at VIGA board meetings, she said.

Recently, when a member voiced a complaint that the board meeting minutes aren’t sent out, Hart quickly responded — she plans to e-mail them to all VIGA members starting with the next board meeting. The minutes had never been sent out before, she said, but she’s happy to do so in order to help VIGA members feel included in the organization’s operations.

“No one’s ever come forward and said, ‘Give me the record for this date,’” she said. “But we’re making changes now to always send e-mail minutes out on the list-serv.”

She added that she recognized the VIGA board could work harder to communicate with the nonprofit’s members and plans to make changes.

“Have we been doing a bad job? No. But can we try to raise that level? Yeah, and we’re making those changes,” she said.

The nine members of the VIGA board have the best intentions and “very high” commitment to the missions of VIGA and to the farmers market, said Sarah Lowry, the board’s immediate past president.

Still, she said ever since she moved to the Island six years ago, she’s heard concerns that there’s a feeling of distance between VIGA members and the organization’s board.

It’s a bit of a Catch-22, she said, because the board tries to engage its members, but they are often too busy during the farm season to spend much time on VIGA’s operations.

“It takes a lot to run VIGA and the farmers market, but a lot of the people who are involved in the market don’t have a lot of time to give,” Lowry said.

Lowry, who is no longer on the VIGA board, said she would not have handled the market manager situation as the newly elected board did.

“I think Ivan did a really great job, and I would have voted for his contract to be renewed, but I also know that running a board can be a really hard thing to do,” she said. “I can’t really criticize the way the decision was made because I wasn’t there.”

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