Park board decision to keep public control of Bloomington farmers market includes restrictions on speech

A sign that reads “Welcome!  to all, including people of color…” can’t be posted in a vendor stall at Bloomington’s public farmers market for the 2020 season. That’s the impact of one revision to the vendor handbook that was approved Thursday afternoon by Bloomington’s board of park commissioners.

New and clarified restrictions on speech at the market are part of the balance that park commissioners tried to strike on Thursday afternoon, when they voted to continue public control of the market, which the city has operated since 1975.

The vote was 3–0.

The city’s legal department gave assurances at Thursday’s meeting that the restrictions on speech conform to established precedents on time, manner and place.

Park commissioners are hoping that the new provisions of the vendor contract and a new, separate set of rules of behavior for the public, will allow a city-operated public market to survive the coming season.

The past year saw market attendance drop by more than half, compared last year, after a vendor was identified with ties to a white supremacist group.

The market was suspended for two weeks amid concerns about possible violence. Protestors holding signs in areas where market rules don’t allow such signs were arrested on two separate Saturdays.

The first incident, which took place in late July, did not result in charges filed. As of this week, no charging decision has been made for the protesters who were arrested in mid-November, according to the Monroe County prosecutor’s office.

The possibility of turning over control to some unspecified private entity had been suggested as a way to exclude a vendor with white supremacist ties. An early June petition to the city was signed by hundreds, asking that the city remove the vendor.

The board’s decision to maintain city control of the market was supported by a letter to the board from Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, who also addressed the board early in the board’s meeting. The majority of vendors at the market signed a letter supporting continued city operation of the market.

Market vendor Susan Welsand aka, The Chile Woman, was not among those who signed the letter in support of the city’s continued operation of the market. Welsand took the public podium during the public commentary period to object to a new sentence in the vendor handbook approved by the board on Thursday:

Vendors may only display signs, information and/or items at their stands that consist of the products they are selling or that are directly related to their business.

Parks and recreation administrator Paula McDevitt confirmed to the Square Beacon after the meeting that the kind of signs that Welsand had posted in her stall this year, starting with “Welcome! to all, including people of color…,” would be prohibited under the new wording. McDevitt told the Square Beacon the city would be posting signs at the market with welcoming language.

This past season, Welsand’s stall was next to that of Schooner Creek Farm, the vendor that protestors had called on the city to remove due to its owners’ ties to a white supremacist group. She told the board her role was to stand next to Schooner Creek Farm in protest of their beliefs.

“Part of the way I was able to do that was through my signage,” she said. “There’s no place at a market for me where I am denied my free speech rights. … I can’t be at a market that strips me of my First Amendment rights,” Welsand said.

The vendor handbook is incorporated by reference into the new vendor contract, approved by the board on Thursday.

On Thursday, adoption of new rules of behavior for the public were put off by the board until its Jan. 28 meeting. The new rules had been the subject of scrutiny at a December meeting of the farmers market advisory council.

Part of the added language in the new rules of behavior is this paragraph:

Except in designated free speech areas, the following conduct is prohibited:
picketing, demonstrating, yelling, excessive or unreasonable noise-making, obstructing or hindering the flow of pedestrians or access to a vendor, and other conduct disrupting Market activities.

The free speech areas—called Information Alley—are on the B-Line Trail side of the venue, away from the awnings where farmers sell their produce.

At Thursday’s meeting, some public commentary requesting additional time to scrutinize and clarify the definition of words like “picketing” and “demonstrating” was acknowledged with a decision to postpone consideration until later in the month. On Thursday, Bloomington’s corporation counsel, Philippa Guthrie, reiterated a point made by city staff at the December meeting: The intent is to clarify the city’s past approach to regulating behavior, not to impose new and different restrictions.

The vote on the city’s continued operation of the market had been anticipated since mid-December. It was taken by a short-handed board, in city council chambers, which was packed with a crowd that spilled up into the balcony.

Longtime board member Joe Hoffmann recently resigned, which left the decision to the three remaining members: Les Coyne, Kathleen Mills, and Lisa Simmons Thatcher. In her remarks, Thatcher gestured to the empty chair where Hoffmann would have sat saying, “I hear you if you say you don’t have faith in those who inhabit the spaces of power. So I urge you to inhabit the spaces yourself and to put yourself at the table.”

Thatcher was delivering prepared remarks, but could have been taken as a response to public commentary from Vauhxx Booker who said:

A lot of us have talked about white supremacy tonight as if it was a mythic thing, something that was our more of an intelligent debate, rather than an actuality. If you want to know what white supremacy looks like, you don’t really have to look any farther than this room. Every decision maker sitting here is a white, most likely middle-class person.

Mills concluded her remarks explaining her vote by saying:

Are there guarantees? No. But I feel very positively about the future of the market. My meeting with some of the vendors led me to believe more than ever that they’re a wonderful group of people, who deserve to continue to operate out of a city-run market, and I look forward to its opening day this spring.

Compared to the other two commissioners, Thatcher seemed more ambivalent with her vote of support. She focused on the fact that she was voting to give a city-run market another year’s time.

Today we are being asked to hold open the space of the market for one more year, so that necessary work has the time and physical space in which to take place. … Creating time will allow for better battle plans to be crafted for the benefit of our community. … A year from now, will the community come to us and tell us they are ready for us to let it go? I don’t know what changes can be made to make the entirety of our community feel safe and welcomed at the market… Maybe my privileges give me too much faith, but at this point, I am just holding out hope that giving the market one more year will allow for the time and space for substantial change to take place.

The city’s goal is to cover market costs with revenues. It’s a target that was hit, even exceeded a bit, in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Last year, the math worked out to 63 percent cost recovery: $150,229 of expenses against $94,800 in revenues.

In 2020, the city is projecting about the same ratio: $153,495 in expenses against $118,851 in revenues for around 77 percent cost recovery.

[Added at 1:35 p.m. on Jan. 11 after initial publication]: At its meeting on Jan. 28, the board of park commissioners will be considering the rules of behavior that were put off at Thursday’s Jan. 9 meeting. The other three documents related to vendors—contract, handbook (incorporated by reference into the contract), and the application—were approved at Thursday’s meeting. The following are redlined draft version of the documents made available at the December meeting of the farmers market advisory council meeting:

One thought on “Park board decision to keep public control of Bloomington farmers market includes restrictions on speech

  1. People of Color! To those who are unaware .. this is archaic and condescending language.. best avoided
    Ask anyone “of Color” what they think of this language…It is not flattering and perpetuates class tensions..

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