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A tale of two farmers' markets

Behind-the-scenes dispute nearly kneecaps the 2018 Whistler Farmers' Market

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An alleged bitter and personal dispute behind the scenes at the Whistler Farmers' Market (WFM) has ended, for now, with the signing of a new contract between the WFM board of directors, market manager Chris Quinlan and landlord Vail Resorts.

The new deal will see the hugely successful and popular market return to its Upper Village location starting Sunday, May 20.

"May long weekend, the market's opening, we've got a whole slate of vendors that are going to be up there; this will be the biggest opening market for May long weekend that we've had, and I'm really, really excited to be doing it with everybody that wants to be involved. Really excited to be doing it," Quinlan said in a May 15 interview.

"We're moving forward on this and I'm happy that we're working together, so it's all good."

After this year, Quinlan said he plans to move on from the market to focus on his farmers' market software MarketWurks.

In response to emailed questions, WFM board chair Nate Hawkins said on May 15 that he was glad there would be a WFM governed by the society this year.

"It has been a difficult time for all, but we are very happy to have found a resolution," he said.

"The Board will be continuing to improve best practices for governance of the WFM as a not-for-profit society."

But the path to the new deal was a winding one, marked by allegations of misconduct, internal investigations, and a brief period in which it looked like Whistler might play host to two separate markets this year.

ALLEGATIONS OF MISCONDUCT

In a March 14 letter (leaked anonymously to Pique by one of the complainants, and confirmed to be authentic by another), the WFM's board director responsible for human resources summarized the results of a January 2018 investigation into Quinlan's management style, the root issue causing dissension on the Farmers' Market board and in-fighting amongst its members.

"Our investigation is now complete, and it has concluded that based on the evidence, including your (vendors) input, misconduct did occur and Mr. Quinlan did engage in conduct which would fall within the definition of bullying and harassment," the letter said.

"Mr. Quinlan resigned before the conclusion of the investigation."

Pique spoke with four vendors about Quinlan's management style, though none were willing to go on the record.

Quinlan disputes the account of his resignation, saying he did not resign in the middle of, or because of, an investigation, while adding that the details behind his departure are an internal matter between him and the board.

"I can't comment on that. I don't know the letter," he said.

Asked to describe his management style, Quinlan said it goes back to working in the restaurant business.

"Your kitchen's going crazy, you've got to get everything polished and ready to go, and it's like, 'let's go, let's go, let's get this done, let's get that done.' And then when you open the doors it's smiles, and everybody smiles and it's a great show," he said.

"And I think when I started seven years ago with the Farmers' Market, I was probably really, really heavy on that first part. Definitely learned a lot in seven years and, well, (when) you get older you mellow out a little bit.

"And I'm the first one to admit it ... people either love me or hate me, but I'm OK with that, and so, anything we do is generally going to be for the better of it."

Sometime after his February resignation, Quinlan was in discussions with Vail Resorts to operate a market in the Upper Village, and a contract to run the market was tabled.

In the meantime, Quinlan created a new website for the "Farmers Market at Whistler" in the Upper Village, and issued a callout for vendor applications.

Though Quinlan tendered his resignation on Feb. 26, the site (which has since been deleted) showed a date of Feb. 16, 2018.

A TALE OF TWO FARMERS' MARKETS

Over several months, the WFM board became split in its support of Quinlan's management style.

On April 20, a letter signed by WFM board members Mihaela Boaru, Renee Dupuis and Emma Sturdy detailing the situation to that point was sent to members of the WFM society.

The letter called for a Special General Meeting to vote on three resolutions: That the WFM cease all legal expenditures unless otherwise approved by the membership at a general meeting; the removal of Hawkins and the vice chair from the board; and for an election to appoint two new members.

"We believe that the actions of the present board are not in the best interest of the membership and that this board has failed in its duty of care, duty of loyalty and duty of obedience," the letter reads, in part.

This letter also explains that in the fall of 2017 the Board decided to take a more hands-on approach, which "created friction with Mr. Quinlan," leading in part to his decision to resign.

The same day, a letter signed only by "The Whistler Farmers Market Board" also went out to all society members, calling the first letter an unsanctioned "opinion piece."

"The process of building a strong market environment for 2018 is still in flux and changing daily. It is for these reasons that the opinions of the three society members presented earlier today need to be viewed with care," the letter reads, in part.

The letter goes on to explain that Quinlan, no longer manager of the WFM, allegedly took email addresses without consent and used them for a new market, causing confusion amongst WFM society members.

"Please disregard emails from Chris Quinlan and let it be known that he is not representing the long-standing 'Whistler Farmers Market Society' that has been operational for 23 years," the letter reads.

Meanwhile, rumours about the fate of the market swirled.

An early May post on the topic in the Whistler Summer Facebook group garnered more than 200 comments before it was deleted. The prevailing theory in the thread was that Whistler would play host to two farmers' markets this year.

Around the same time, WFM board members were in active and productive discussions with the Westin to hold a market on the hotel's property.

But a recent vote on a new deal brought the board and Quinlan back to the table.

THE IMPACT ON VENDORS

For the vast majority of the WFM's 120 or so vendors, the backroom conflicts and political struggles on which they take no position have caused confusion.

"So far the situation hasn't had any real financial impact on us, it's more just the uncertainty and worry which is damaging," said Jo Munkenbeck, of Amo La Vita pasta truck, in a Facebook message to Pique before the new agreement was reached.

"Last year was our first year vending and we are definitely still working on breaking even from our initial overhead."

As it is for many other vendors, the WFM is the main source of income for Amo La Vita, Munkenbeck said, and if the market were to collapse, the losses would be huge.

"My partner and I would probably in this case be forced to take regular jobs, which would be a big blow after the set up costs of our food truck, and may jeopardize the future of our business for years to come. As we stand it's a week until the first market and neither market organizer has informed anyone as to if they have a certain spot in the market for the season," she said.

"This is obviously pretty concerning. My ideal outcome is that everyone can put the politics and personal conflicts behind them and think about what is best for all vendors and organizers.

"The vast majority of vendors are in the same boat as us—mostly in the dark about the issues involved and conflicts that are happening and yet still somehow directly affected."

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