VENDORS SUSPECT COUNCIL MEMBERS OF INTERFERING IN MARKET ENFORCEMENT
A decision by the city of Greensboro’s interim parks and recreation director to overturn a decision to suspend a local farmer from the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market has stoked suspicions of political interference among some vendors and customers. Mike Causey, owner of Dodge Lodge Farms in southeastern Guilford County, received a letter from the Greensboro Parks & Recreation department on Aug. 25 informing him that he had been observed selling blueberries from under his table, and that he would be suspended for a year as a consequence of the violation. Blueberries found under Causey’s table on Aug. 22 had not been authorized to be sold at the market. Interim Parks & Recreation Director Anthony Wade said he rescinded the suspension because he could find no evidence that money changed hands. Wade is also director of the city’s human relations department.
“As a human rights investigator, my background is in developing legally sufficient investigations,” Wade said. “In order for me to take actions that penalize an individual, I need to ensure that we have enough evidence to justify those actions. I took the standard elements of evidence and looked at them and applied them to the case and said I would have a hard time justifying suspension and a suspension of that duration.”
After overturning the suspension, Wade said he outlined expectations to Causey, including that “anything he was unauthorized to sell at the market, those transactions should occur off the market property.” Wade added that Causey “readily agreed” to the terms.
In his defense, Causey told Wade that the blueberries were not for sale; rather he planned to relinquish them to a community sustainable agriculture, or CSA subscriber.
The incident marked the third violation for which Causey has been cited this year. The farmer served a 30-day suspension in June and July for selling unauthorized blueberries. Causey has acknowledged that he applied for a variance to sell the blueberries, which were grown in Johnston County by another farmer, and that his application was denied. The market mission emphasizes local products, and Market Coordinator Lynne Leonard explained in a June 10 letter that Causey’s application was being denied “due to the fact that we currently have local vendors who grow their own blueberries selling at the market.”
Market management had confirmed that Causey was not growing the blueberries on June 2 when Market Manager Larry Smith visited the farm and reported that he could find no bushes bearing ripe berries.
Causey said his agreement not to store blueberries under his table was easy because its season is coming to an end, adding that he believes the prohibition against selling that product lacks legitimacy and he will raise the issue before blueberries come back in season next year. The farmer pointed to a provision in the market’s Vendor Participation Guidelines that specifies that products can only be offered for sale by “the farmer who raised them, or the artisan who made them, or his/her agent.” Causey said he met with Smith a couple weeks ago to discuss getting farmersacross North Carolina to draft lettersauthorizing him to act as their agent atthe market.“That’s something we will have toresolve before next season,” Causeysaid. “It’s not just blueberries. It couldbe anything. The whole issue is —everybody agrees that you need to haverules and guidelines, but when you getto the point of being like, having ironfistedenforcement or heavy-handedenforcement, that’s not good for the customers;that’s not good for the vendors.”Greensboro City CouncilwomanMary Rakestraw’s involvement in thecontroversy has prompted new concernsby other vendors and some customersthat enforcement actions by marketmanagement are being overturnedbecause of political pressure from electedofficials.Causey returned to the market aftercompleting a 30-day suspension for hissecond documented violation of the yearon July 12. Nine days later, Rakestrawmentioned the turmoil at the farmersmarket from dais in city council chambers.“I would like to meet with parks andrec and Dr. Anthony Wade over the factthat we’re having problems with ourfarmers market,” she said. “It seems thatthere’s some bullying of vendors andwe need to take care of this problem.And so I’m going to try to get a meetingtogether so we can resolve this. It’s notturning into a farmers market anymore,Madame Mayor; it’s turning into almosta free-for-all with vendors going againstvendors, and we can’t have that.”Interim City Manager Bob Morgan,interim Parks & Recreation DirectorAnthony Wade and parks and recreationprogram support manager Chris Wilsonconfirmed that they met with Rakestrawon July 24.“My recollection was that there wassomeone who was complaining aboutthe rules about the farmers market,”Morgan said. Wade said the concernbrought to staff by Rakestraw concerned“equity of treatment occurring in themarket among vendors.”Causey said he was aware of themeeting occurring, but did not contactRakestraw. The councilwoman did notreturn calls seeking clarification of thematter.“I know that Mary Rakestraw hadasked Bob Morgan, as well as myselfand Chris Wilson to sit in with severalindividuals who had concerns aboutthe farmers market,” Wade said. “Outof that came the results of the meeting,including revisiting the practices andprocedures and looking at possibilitiesto create greater transparency and efficiencyto services to consumers, as wellas improving the market conditions andrelations for vendors.”The staff members could recall theidentity of only one individual whoattended the meeting to express concernsabout the market. That was RuthFoster, a customer who has complainedto the Parks & Recreation Commissionin the past about being unable to buyunauthorized product from the market.Jim Rientjes, a Greensboro potterwho sells his wares at the farmers market,said he and other vendors were toldabout the meeting by Wade.“They had this meeting, and then theybacked off on the one-year suspension,”he said.It would be a month later beforeCausey ran afoul of market managementagain, and before Wade’s decision tooverturn the suspension took place.Morgan said he is aware of norequests by elected officials to overturndisciplinary decisions at the farmersmarket.Wade said the decision to overturn thesuspension was his, and his alone.“I didn’t talk to anyone in the citymanager’s office or city council aboutthis,” he said. “This is a decision thatI made as a department head. If we’regoing to suspend thisguy, after reviewingthis, I decided therewasn’t sufficientevidence. There wasabsolutely no politicalpressure on me at all.”Rientjes and othervendors advocating forbetter enforcement ofthe rules see a parallelwith a similar episodein May and June of2008.A May 27, 2008 letter to Causeyfrom market coordinator Lynne Leonardnoted that the vendor was selling threedifferent types of produce that werenot personally grown by him withoutlabeling them, and informed him thathe was being suspended for 30 days. Asubsequent letter dated May 30 reducedthe suspension to 15 days, “based on myconversations with you and yourstatements of sincerity to comply withmarket policies in the future.” Then, onJune 2, Causey received a third letterfrom Leonard notifying him that hissuspension had been commuted to a sixmonthprobationary period.“A long time ago, [Causey] calledme about something, and I called toinquire,” said Mayor Yvonne Johnson,who is a mediator by profession. “Ididn’t ask anybody to do anything for oragainst him…. A number of people whowent to the market called me. I did askquestions, but I didn’t say, ‘You betterdo this.’”For his part, Causey said, “No othervendor has been treated, singled out theway they have singled out me since thebeginning of 2008. And it’s my understandingthat the questions that was putto whoever the management was: Areyou holding every other vendor to thissame standard? If every other vendoris not being held to the same standard,why are you singling out this particularvendor?… I received a call from ChrisWilson. He invited me to come back. Iwas really upset. I said I would nevercome back. Mr. Wilson said he hopedthat wouldn’t happen.”Now, 16 months later, under pressurefrom Rientjes and other vendors, themarket management is again steppingup enforcement efforts. Market managerLarry Smith and Guilford CountyCooperative Extension agent WilliamB. Wickliffe II are making farm visits toverify that vendors are growing the produceon their tables.“The market manageris coming outhere Tuesday,” saidBrian Gann, vicepresident of operationsat Gann Farmsin McLeansville. “Iasked him why. Hesaid, ‘Because wedon’t want Causey tofeel like he’s singledout.’”Gann said he feelsthat he’s in jeopardyof losing his privilege to sell produce atthe market. He added that some of thevendors who are clamoring to have therules enforced are not from GuilfordCounty, as he is. The rules are beingenforced selectively, he intimated.“They’re going to a select few,” hesaid. “These people in RockinghamCounty ain’t part of that select few.”
Vendor Mike Causey chats with customer Zan Liccione at theGreensboro Farmers Curb Market. Causey and Market Manager Larry Smithwere the only vendors present on a recent Wednesday in the lateafternoon. (photo by Jordan Green)