Overland Park taking control of farmers' market

After months of controversy, Overland Park is taking control of the operations of the city's farmers' market.

The City Council voted late Monday to take over administration and operation of the vendors' market, which has been run under contract by a separate group, the Downtown Overland Park Partnership.

"It is clear to me that the frequent changes in Downtown Overland Park Partnership staff and perhaps more importantly, market managers, has not provided the stability and consistency necessary to effectively manage the Farmers' Market over the long term," City Manager John Nachbar said.

The city will take control of the farmers' market beginning in 2011.

Robin Fish, the partnership's executive director, wasn't available for an interview today, but issued a prepared statement. The statement read in part:

"We absolutely understand the City’s decision to incorporate this Overland Park icon into their program of work. The market is vital to the quality of life in this community, and we support the transition.

"Through the City’s review process, they’ve become aware of the complexities of managing the program and the tremendous amount of resources required, which the City can provide to a greater extent.”

Nachbar said he made the recommendations Monday night, which was his last council meeting before leaving Aug. 13 to become city manager in Culver City, Calif. He said he wanted his recommendation made public before leaving City Hall.

The city has been investigating the operations of the market since early May after complaints surfaced publicly when some vendors picketed following a decision not to let them return this year.

The vendors speculated that their ouster was related to their price-fixing claims against the downtown partnership.

Earlier this year, Kansas Attorney General Stephen Six became aware of a clause in the Farmers’ Market 2009 contract and determined that it violated Kansas restraint of trade laws.

The clause required prices that year "to be kept within a 50-cent range of the fair market price for that day." The attorney general asked that it be removed from this year’s contract. Partnership officials said the clause had been removed before the attorney general's request.

Among other things, the city has been looking at allegations of vendors acting inappropriately, the sources of produce being sold, as well as contract guidelines that once discouraged vendors to cut their prices.

Nachbar said that investigation is nearing completion and more information would be released in the coming weeks.

George Dragush had been a vendor at the Overland Park market for 21 years before not being allowed back this year.

He said he was relieved to see the city manager take some action. He said he initially feared the city wasn’t going to take any action on the farmers' market.

“I’m very elated,” Dragush said. “Mr. Nachbar is holding true to his word. I assumed they were going to sweep everything under the rug and it was going to be business as usual.”

City Councilman Paul Lyons said it had become evident that the downtown partnership didn’t have the staff or the time to run the farmers’ market well.

He noted that partnership had been through maybe as many as five market managers since 2003, making it difficult to ensure consistent and fair application of the market rules.

“I think it’s evident that the Downtown Overland Park Partnership staff is overwhelmed,” Lyons said.

The city’s move to run the market should help ease the controversy by taking the personalities out of the operation in favor of more professional management, Lyons said.

“I’m optimistic the farmers are going to see it as a positive step,” he said.

City Hall has tried to distance itself from the controversy at the farmers' market, with city officials repeatedly stressing that they don't operate the market.

But City Hall has an arms-length relationship with the Downtown Overland Park Partnership, which runs the market under a contract with the city.

The city set up a special board appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council to collect fees from downtown business owners that help run the partnership.

Downtown merchants and property owners elect a separate board that oversees the partnership’s operations. Two members of the City Council — Lyons and Terry Happer Scheier — sit on that board.