The Williamston Post
By Caitlin DeLuca
The Farmers Market and its market manager were reinstated in a unanimous vote during Monday night’s standing-room only City Council meeting.
The market had been defunded the prior week by the Downtown Development Authority, and Marlene Epley, the market manager, was fired via letter two days later.
This did not sit well with many citizens of Williamston, who came out in force to the council meeting.
“I was pleased that so many people showed up,” said Kathryn Vanallsburg, a small music business owner in Williamston who volunteers at the market.
From there, the meeting got heated.
Upwards of 15 citizens took to the podium to vent their frustration and anger with the situation and how it was handled.
One of those citizens was Epley’s husband, Leo, who helps with the market.
He said during the meeting that after the DDA defunded the market, Epley was sent a letter by the city manager effectively terminating her position, with no face-to-face interaction.
What’s more, there was $3,200 that was once allocated to the farmers market will stay with the DDA, leaving them low on funding.
One-fourth of the market’s budget came from the DDA, with the rest coming from vendor fees, grants from the state and donations.
The funding was the biggest problem for the City Council to cover. Councilman Sean Bertolino said after the meeting that the $3,200 gap “poses a little bit of a concern.”
Some citizens responded quickly to news of the budget shortfall.
“We had someone willing to donate a check for some amount of money and another one of our great citizens decided to underwrite it, if that’s a possibility, so that’s fantastic,” Bertolino said in an interview after the meeting.
Bertolino said in an interview that the Farmers Market had been losing money in recent years, which contributed to the DDA’s decision to stop funding it. DDA officials could not be reached for comment.
“The simple fact is in terms of financially we can’t operate at a loss,” Bertolino said. “You just can’t do that long term. Every time you balance a checkbook, you know you can’t spend more that you make.”
Epley, a former employee for the state of Michigan and a Michigan State University graduate of organic agriculture with a certification to run farmers markets, said she was never made aware she had to break even.
She also said the DDA had been making decisions for the farmer’s market without her knowledge or approval.
“I felt bullied,” said Epley during the meeting. “I felt there were some things going on behind my back that were unfair.”
One example she gave during the meeting were flyers that had coupons for free flowers during four of the Farmers Market days last year, and the flowers either never showed, there weren’t enough, or were taped up with businesses information, essentially making it seem that the city was promoting a business.
Those flyers cost the market’s budget around $385, according to Epley.
Then, last Thursday, two days after the DDA meeting, she was fired.
“I don’t know what instigated it,” Epley said.
“I don’t think it was right for the community that the DDA didn’t even have it on their agenda – last Tuesday. They added it at the meeting and they voted on it at their meeting and the community didn’t get any input into it.”
The amended agenda is currently posted online, though it’s unclear whether or not it was posted before the meeting.
However, Epley was able to get vindication through the council’s vote. As she was employed through the city, the council’s vote automatically reinstated her.
“I’m just happy that I’m reinstated so that I can get on with getting the Farmers Market going this season because if I hadn’t have been reinstated it was going to be delayed and the more it gets delayed the more it hurts the Farmers Market,” said Epley in an interview. “I’m really glad I got reinstated so that I could just do my work.”
Epley has already begun that work, according to Vanallsburg.
“Marlene has already taken initiative…and she’s getting out all the applications to the vendors,” she said. “It’s just turning it into a viable business now.”
The Farmers Market runs on Sundays from May through October from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.