Tuesday, July 18, 2017

An Open Letter to City Council Responding to Ken Katz Open Letter to City Council

Front page cover of the newspaper L’Aurore of ...
Front page cover of the newspaper L’Aurore of Thursday 13 January 1898, with the letter J’accuse...!, written by Émile Zola about the Dreyfus affair. The headline reads "I accuse! Letter to the President of the Republic". See J'accuse...!, the whole text on Wikisource. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here is a link to Ken Katz' recent open letter to City Council. Here is my response.

Let me begin with a thought experiment.  What if you, Oakland City Council member, were confronted with the demand that you be immediately recalled from office for dubious cause but that, of course, you could run for your post again – maybe?  Sound fair to you? That’s the situation the Agricultural Institute of Marin (AIM) finds itself in today when confronted with Ken Katz’ recent manifesto concerning its management of the Grand Lake Farmers Market.

His attack on AIM’s management of the Grand Lake Market needs to be turned on its head.  Any analysis of his “open letter” needs to begin not with refuting his criticisms but with a close examination of the proposed solution to AIM’s alleged inadequacies because that proposed solution – an RFP, or Request For Proposal - is unfair, disproportionate and in every way overkill.  Before talking about the problems, we must talk about the proposed sledgehammer approach to solving them.

One must first acknowledge what a RFP is.  In this context, applied to this long-established farmers market, it would in effect terminate AIM as market manager, fire them, throw them out.  You have been so deficient a market manager – it would in effect say - that we are shoving you out the door, though perhaps we will let you reapply. (That’s a big “perhaps.” Back to that in a minute.)

Such an action is unfair given the quality of AIM’s management of the Grand Lake Market over the last 18 years.  If (and that’s a very big if) one concludes that AIM’s management has been deficient and some improvement is needed, AIM’s track record has earned it the right to negotiate exclusively with the city on the merits of those complaints as city staff recommended in a council report in January.  That would be both fair and sensible.

Now back to that “perhaps” I mentioned earlier: the “promise” that a chastened AIM could reapply to manage the market.  Anyone versed in the ways of bureaucracy knows that the key phase in the life of an RFP is not its final application but its creation, in the setting of its basic ground rules. Stipulations can be added – let us say stipulating where market management be headquartered or a requirement that a certain percentage of vendors be from Oakland – that would pre-select who could apply and who could be chosen.  In short, AIM could fall victim to the sort of generalized pie-in-the-sky wish lists that sound good but that ignore the realities of what it takes to run a market in this city.

RFPs can be gamed.  I fear what would happen if those members of the neighborhood group who are the principal opponents of AIM’s management of Grand Lake Market somehow were given the power to write, or even influence, the document.

For many years, I brought my Advanced Reporting class across the bridge from San Francisco to Oakland city council to do their required meeting story.  I cannot forget the Tuesday evening when a council member's chief of staff who had over the years befriended my classes told us with great excitement that, “You’ve picked a great meeting. Tonight I actually don’t know what the outcome of one of the votes will be.”  What he meant, of course, was that many political decisions fly under the radar, and that sometimes citizens become engaged so late in the process that for all practical purposes the decision has actually already been made in the shadows, in committee or subcommittee or - in this current case of who manages the market - somewhere (I fear) in the RFP process.  I want any decision about the market’s future to take place in the sunshine with as many people as possible informed and involved.  A RFP is not the way to go.

And – back to basics - a RFP would be justified only if AIM’s deficiencies are real and, if real, serious enough to deserve the aforementioned sledgehammer blow.  Let’s examine some of these alleged deficiencies and the proposed solutions to them.

1)    AIM’s supposed ability to pay more to the city of Oakland.  It’s a legitimate question.  I’ve examined AIM’s 990 tax form, and it does not seem to me that lavish salaries are being tossed around.  But as a former newspaper journalist and now a journalism professor, I’ve examined many 990s, and it is a challenge to interpret them.  Therefore, put city staff to work researching the question, specifically finding out what other farmers markets in the city pay.  Extend that research to popular markets in other cities.  Then let that be a baseline for conversations with AIM.  Indeed, those of us who are fighting for AIM to continue as market manager would be glad to volunteer time to help with such useful research.  The following is an excerpt from a 2011 article in the Oakland Tribune addressing this concern:

But in Oakland, there seems to be no agreement as to the idea behind the city's farmers' markets.  Are they about economic vitality, but not about tax revenue?  Fruits and vegetables, but also arts and crafts?  According to [now retired] Councilwoman Pat Kernighan, whose district includes Grand Lake, the city hasn't gotten around to that question.  "The city council has never passed a comprehensive policy with regard to farmers' markets," she said.  "I think the thinking," with the first market in Old Oakland in 1989, "was that providing fresh fruits and vegetables is a benefit to the people."  The second component, she said, which developed later, is that "it's a festive public gathering that tends to attract people to the neighborhood.

"The Grand Lake market has become phenomenally successful beyond our wildest dreams," (emphasis added) Kernighan continued.  She described the lines outside ArizmendiLakeshore CafeStarbucks, and Peet's on Saturday mornings; the pedestrian traffic that slows to a standstill on Lakeshore, the parking difficulties that encourage residents to walk to the market from a half-mile away.  The market, she and others began to realize, "has really some wonderful benefits, but it also had some downsides that need to be dealt with."

Her statements are as relevant now as they were then.  The market is indeed “phenomenally successful.”  And it would be a good idea for the city to step back and take a comprehensive look at how farmers markets fit into the future of Oakland.  But a piecemeal, kneejerk attack on that “phenomenal” AIM-managed Grand Lake Farmers Market?  How foolish and counterproductive. Certainly no RFP is needed.

2)    The desirability of hiring an existing Oakland-based farmers market group to run the market.  Isn’t it great that Oakland’s new police chief is from Oakland?  (Wait, no she isn’t.)  And that our next fire chief will be.  (Maybe.  It’s a nationwide search, the idea being you find the best people for the toughest job.)  I do not mean to be flip, but the determiner in choosing who should run a complex and challenging farmers market should be competence, not parochialism.  Certainly one wants whoever manages the Grand Lake Market to be responsive to neighborhood, and to citywide concerns, and we believe AIM is.  Marin is not on the other side of the world.

3)    The desirability of hiring a local non-profit group expressly created for the purpose of running the Grand Lake Farmers Market.  This sounds good because it seems to create a kind of sweet spot in any attempt to expel AIM.  It seems to respond to the obvious shortcoming that if you toss out AIM, you toss out AIM’s farmers and other vendors, many of whom are beloved by neighborhood residents.  So perhaps a brand-new non-profit could keep the “best” of the farmers?  Maybe and maybe not.  Several vendors have told us they feel threatened by Katz.  Also, if AIM loses Grand Lake, it’s reasonable to assume they would find another locale for a Saturday market, taking vendors with them. Moreover, it takes expertise and commitment to run a farmers market.  Assuming such a new local non-profit will arise and that it will have the skills to assemble and run a market is a risk the neighborhood and the city cannot afford to take.  And what would be the impetus for such a local non-profit to arise?  Previous assertions by the Katz group about how lucrative the market is suggest a possible motive for removing it and replacing it with a local group, and that is to create an opportunity to create a non-profit that produces income for its organizers through salaries for those organizers.  That possibility – that motive - should at least be considered.

Now, to be fair, let us cite Katz’ proposed market "guidelines" in his newsletter from several months ago, which included this statement:

Considering the long term lack of support from the current management – combined with our limited expectations for future improvements, we’d recommend that the city issue an RFP inviting other market operators to submit bids.  We’d also consider organizing a community non-profit for this purpose that would ensure more local participation and be able to pour some of the proceeds into Splash Pad Park improvements – as well as contribute more financially to the City of Oakland.

Katz has since denied he wants to manage the market, but read the preceding paragraph and judge for yourselves. It’s a lovely promise that this imagined group would “pour” market profits into the park. But the choice of words betrays the fundamental assumption by the group that is attacking AIM, that the market is some kind of cash cow or golden goose that runs on autopilot. (Pardon the mixed metaphor.)  Bring in a new manager, spin around twice, and turn on the money faucet! Good luck with that, as my students used to say. As I said earlier, let the city, using its accountants and MBAs, figure out just what additional payback Oakland should expect from AIM – if any, and in addition to all the indirect benefits the market has provided to the city and the neighborhood.

But do not underestimate the importance of expertise. Let those researchers take a look at the Jack London Square market.  In recent conversations, several Grand Lake marketgoers have commented on how the Jack London Square market is much diminished because of new restrictions. I do not know if this is true, but determining its accuracy is an example of the kind of research that needs to be done before the city makes too quick a decision about the Grand Lake Market.

Finally, where in Katz’ open letter to city council are the all-important words, “AIM has refused to negotiate changes with the city or with its legal representatives”?  Ken Katz and Jerry Barclay have no status to request, much less demand, anything of AIM.  They are volunteer participants in an organization that was apparently created by a previous council member to advise her, not to instruct the market on how it should behave.  In recent years, I have been mildly amused – indeed, it has often brought a smile to my face – to see Katz as a kind of self-declared Sheriff of the Market, bustling around keeping an eye on things in much the way that legendary gadfly Sanjiv Handa used to sit in the front row at Oakland City Council making suggestions – and often accusations – of varying degrees of usefulness.

It may be that Katz deserves commendation for making so loud a noise that the city and the market can begin a conversation on the merits of his accusations and insinuations.  But there is no reason to jump from the possibility of adjusting the market’s contractual relationship with the city to the nuclear option of terminating it.

Appendix created by Edith Landrith-Robertson which addresses some of the other criticisms that have emerged from the Katz camp of how AIM has run the Grand Lake Market.

·      Gravel path (decomposed granite):  Individuals are claiming that the wear of the gravel pathways is caused by AIM’s poor management of the farmers market and site.  I, Edith Landrith-Robertson, registered architect, attended a design meeting nearly 20 years ago when the park was being re-designed to accommodate the Grand Lake Farmers Market.  That meeting was attended by the design landscape architect, neighborhood individuals and myself.  I was told of the meeting and asked to attend by a committee individual who thought ‘wrong design decisions’ were being made by the landscape architect and neighborhood representatives and requested that I attend and comment on the design.  I attended that meeting and commented as I had been asked to do.  At that meeting, because of my experience with parks and public projects, I told the design group that the material being proposed for the majority of the walkways within Splash Pad Park was an inappropriate material for the proposed use.  It was, I said, not durable, would not hold up to light foot traffic, let alone heavy traffic.  I explained that the material could be easily dislodged, and when that happened it would almost certainly become a tripping hazard, a liability for the City and for that reason should not be installed in the heavily used park.  The designer, with the approval of neighborhood individuals, ignored my warning and approved decomposed granite.  Decomposed granite was installed and failed almost immediately.  I find it disingenuous now that the very neighborhood resident who approved of the use of a material (decomposed granite), a material which can never hold up to foot traffic, now blames the farmers market (AIM) for the poor condition of the paths.  He is blaming the logical outcome of his recommendation and the original poor design decision on the farmers market managers, Agricultural Institute of Marin, who was not part of choosing the wrong material for the park in the first place.  If the gravel is replaced today, tomorrow it will be kicked out because that is the nature of loose fill. Decomposed granite is simply the wrong material for the heavily used paths of Splash Pad Park.  It was a bad design decision and should, because it is a liability, be replaced.  But don’t blame AIM for the problem. Certainly, replacing the granite is a good idea, but it is primarily a city responsibility.

* An elaboration on the issue of Revenue Generated By the Market:  Earlier this year the leader of the group that wants to run their own farmers market said at a public meeting that if he ran the market he would pay the City more for running the market at Splash Pad Park than AIM is currently paying.  If any market manager paid more to use the site, that would be nice, but it is not just what a market management group pays the City to use the site that brings revenue into a city: It is what the market brings into a city (via sales taxes) as a result of the market’s activities that generates the bulk of the revenue from which the city benefits.  AIM’s Grand Lake Farmers Market at Splash Pad Park generates a significant amount of revenue through non-food vendors (which incidentally members of this group have stated they would like to eliminate) and especially by the business generated by farmers market attendees shopping in the retail establishments on Grand and Lakeshore Avenues.  Shopping in local stores and eating in local restaurants generates sales tax revenue for the City of Oakland. The man may pay more for use of the site, but if it is a lesser quality farmers market that replaces AIM’s market - and a drop off in quality is a likely bet no matter who might be chosen to replace AIM - then sales tax revenue will drop and the overall City income from the farmers market decreases.

* Grass:  A few in the neighborhood blame the condition of the grass on the market managers (AIM).  The fact is that this winter Oakland received about 50% more rain than in an average year, and that made sod, sod in the park and in anyone’s yard, a muddy mess when walked on.  Grass can be re-grown.  Other than the grass, in my opinion the plantings in the park (my first degree was in biology) could have been better laid out, and, I believe, a different selection of plants would have been more attractive.  Originally the designer proposed Lombardy Poplars, but thankfully used other trees instead and at least the trees fare better than other plants in the park.

* Pavement discoloration:  A few neighborhood activists are ‘upset’ by the fact that there is some staining of pavers and asphalt in Splash Pad Park as a result of farmers market vendors and farmers market attendees.  I say, yes there is some staining, but considering that the park has been the site of a busy market for almost two decades, that is not surprising.   Some staining would likely have occurred even if a market had not been on the site.  Disneyland and Disney World both steam clean their walkways at the end of each day to keep walks pristine.  Periodical steam cleaning of stained pathways and gathering spaces would make the park ‘cleaner’ and no one would object to that, but, this claim, it seems to me, is simply a way to try to find something wrong with our wonderful market, so that individuals can push out the current managers who over the years have done an outstanding job.

* Parking problems. The essence of this criticism is that the success of the market makes it difficult to find a parking place during market hours on Saturday and that AIM should do something about it. How to go about unpacking this complaint?  When my husband and I go to market, usually it takes five to ten minutes to find a parking place. But we always find a parking place.  If we did not love the market so much, we would go home – or never venture forth in the first place.  A handful of local residents seem to want a small-scale, mildly repulsive farmers market to which they can go without the rude jangle of rubbing elbows with the masses.  This, of course, is a recipe for soon there being no farmers market at all.  When my husband and I moved to the neighborhood in 1991, Lakeshore Avenue had so little foot traffic we wondered what was wrong with the neighborhood.  Today we relish those moments when the street is most busy, when it is alive.  What seems an inconvenience to others seems to us a welcome sign of neighborhood health.  The benefits of the market far outweigh any problems with parking.  As Oakland A’s season ticket holders, my husband and I have gone to many games in recent years where parking is easy, and we have had half a row to ourselves to watch our beloved, beautiful, bumbling A’s. Guess why that is so.  Is that what you want for our farmers market?

NOTE:  One aspect of the new lease with AIM addresses parking.  It is my understanding that parking will again be available at Lake Park School site.

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