SWAMPSCOTT — Town officials are considering policy changes to the Farmer’s Market in the wake of a public complaint from one its vendors alleging unfair treatment.
Dina Maietta, a 27-year town resident and her fiancé, Ricky Prezioso, run Cannoli Corner and More at the market, where they have been vendors for the past five years.
The couple spoke publicly at a Board of Selectmen meeting last month, claiming that the town’s recreation director, Danielle Strauss, had been treating them unfairly and charging them more than other vendors. They alleged they have also been charged a mandatory donation over the years for town events and that they have been “bullied,” saying that the situation has caused them both emotional and financial harm.
But Town Administrator Sean Fitzgerald said he thinks the complaint stems from a misunderstanding and inconsistencies in the Farmer’s Market policies. He said he thinks “there was some inconsistencies with how we establish policies for donations and solicitation, and as we go forward, we will look to standardize the fees and some of the costs associated with the Farmer’s Market.”
“The Farmer’s Market created a terrific opportunity for the creative economy to really thrive in Swampscott, but it’s important to recognize that over these last few years, our policies and regulations really do need to be updated to keep up with the complexities of the market,” Fitzgerald said.
Strauss said updating the policies for the market is something that she and Fitzgerald have been working on for quite awhile.
“The sleepy little Farmer’s Market has grown into quite the great little community event that we can have every single Sunday and it’s been very popular this summer and we felt it was time to update our policies,” Strauss said. “We have a lot more people emailing us every week asking us to join the Farmer’s Market.”
“We’ve gone from a little over 10 vendors to now over 30 and it’s important to establish a structure that would allow us to deal with how we manage fees and logistics associated with the market,” said Fitzgerald. “I do think it’s important to have a board of directors that reflects a number of perspectives and I’m confident that we can continue to build upon the success of the market and evolve strategies that would help us ensure Swampscott’s Farmer’s Market is one of the best in Massachusetts.”
Fitzgerald said that when he was made aware of the complaint in July and learned the town was accepting cash for the market, the decision was made to prohibit cash fees. He said he doesn’t think the appearance of taking cash is appropriate and “I think we can coordinate some of the accounting and reconciliation if we move to either online or a non-cash payment system.”
Fitzgerald said staff had mentioned that there were some misunderstandings about the donations for the Fourth of July, or Strawberry Festival, which he said were not mandatory, but rather suggested.
Responding to the couple claiming that they had been charged more for the Farmer’s Market fee, or that they were charged when other vendors weren’t, Fitzgerald said he thinks that some vendors paid less and that’s part of the inconsistencies that the pair has identified as being unfair. He said there can be a different policy that captures the equity of the market — for example, he said there could be a different policy for vendors that are a little smaller or have a different type of product.
Strauss said there is a fee structure for vendors in the existing Farmer’s Market policy, which has been the same since the market started five years ago. According to the policy, which is shown on the market’s website, the flat rate for one tent is $20, for two tents, the cost is $40 and for more than two tents, the fee is $50.
Strauss said there were no suggested cash donations for the market, but rather just cash fees, and the change to paying by check or online was made in mid-July.
Fitzgerald and Strauss also addressed the couple’s claim that there was a “do not compete” at the market, where Maietta said they were the first coffee vendor and two more coffee vendors have since been added, by pointing out the existing Farmer’s Market policy, which reads that “the Farmer’s Market committee may sell (products) to complement the market. We will not compete with market vendors.”
Fitzgerald said some policy changes to the market will be recommended to the Board of Selectmen in the coming weeks. One of the changes will include creating more of a code of conduct for volunteers, staff and vendors.
He said that will include language such as wanting “vendors to treat customers with courtesy, respect and honesty, but also volunteers and staff” and wanting “folks to assist other vendors when possible and treat market staff, volunteers and vendors with respect and understanding.
“It’s important to understand that every complaint we get, we thoroughly evaluate,” Fitzgerald said. “We have looked into this and have taken some of the legitimate concerns and evolved these into changes that I think will help serve the Farmer’s Market in the future.
“I also think it’s important that folks are careful about how they deal with some of these issues and we have a terrific Farmer’s Market and I think the aspersions that have been cast are unfair and I really value the dedication and hard work of both staff and volunteers that have helped create a terrific, creative economy in Swampscott,” he said.
Maietta insists that there has not been a misunderstanding, and that policy changes won’t change the fact that there are two other coffee vendors in the market for the couple to compete with. She said the situation has “really done a job on our business” and will continue to pursue the matter, and that she thinks the town should “investigate this thoroughly.”