This editorial was written after Shauna Lee Lange went to the October 6 Lee County Commissioners’ meeting in an attempt to find out why 24 of her vendors – many of which were allowed last year – were disallowed this year. For more information on that story read last week’s Boca Beacon or go to bocabeacon.com.
On Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015, I woke up early, scurried my son off to school, and pointedly drove down to Fort Myers where the Lee County Board of Commissioners was holding their regularly scheduled 9:30 a.m. meeting.
I was there, alone, to speak in public gallery for an allotted three minutes on Ordinance 34-3048’s definition of allowable entities in farmers markets. Three minutes after multiple in-person, emails, letters and phone call attempts to illustrate the recent negative application of the ordinance on our local enterprise; much of which has been chronicled by this publication.
After warmly welcoming the Commissioners to join us on Fridays at 305 Wheeler Road (County property leased via a Special Events Permit), I outlined our September 2015 pregnant anticipation of more than 50 craft, services, and local small business food and farmer vendors and their many contributions to our open-air, seasonal exchange. Briefly, I recapped how I had been requested in the last hours to submit a list of proposed vendors, how that list had been arbitrarily and summarily reviewed, and how county staff had issued denials for more than 24 proposed vendors just one week prior to opening. I alluded to how injurious that action was to the community, the vendors, the county, and to myself.
Embarrassingly, my voice started to shake. I had not wanted to be in an oppositional stance with authority and I had committed to working collaboratively for effectiveness. As it happens, over the years I have spoken to many large and significant public meetings. But when it’s something you care about, something you’ve given your energy to, something involving other peoples livelihoods, it’s a different story. And when that something is, at its foundation, edifying – doesn’t harm anyone – and brings the local community closer together, then it’s urgent that we speak with conviction and determination and resolve.
I went on to describe my experience of being a US Veteran and a career Federal Civil Servant, and not presently understanding on any level the application of this particular three-year old (and rarely enforced) ordinance. Its restrictively vague prohibitions, translates to free economy, fair exchange or open commerce – much of which I believe aligns with our country’s trade history and the intent of commerce as we know it today.
I hit them with the fact that 90 percent of local farmers markets revenue stays in the immediate local area. I outlined how farmers markets have been proven to increase business to local merchants. I described small business vendors and their dependence on avenues for entrepreneurial exchange, as well as how the farmers market itself functions as a community hub. I explained how widely diverse markets offering a range of options are critical to small, remote food desert communities such as ours. I even tossed in our interdependence on island based businesses.
Well, they stared at me from their podiums in the sky and their huge leather chairs. They had just prior heard from the Mayor of the City Cape Coral asking for additional funding, followed by a vibrantly opinionated exchange, and now they’re listening to complaints about an ordinance? The lawyers stared, the county administrators stared, the Sheriffs stared, the gallery stared. Even an intimidating, bearded General Robert E. Lee stared down in his gray Civil War uniform from the massive portraiture on the back wall of the chamber. But I pressed on. I spoke about the vagueness of the language of the ordinance, in particular the term “agriculturally related.” I addressed the broad over breadth of the regulation. I asked about due process and arbitrary decisions and equity amongst farmers markets. And I had precedent lined up and questions about conflicting agritourism legislation on queue. Oh, I was ready.
Alas, I am not a lawyer and just as I was aiming to pitch them a hardball about clay pottery coming from the earth and how you couldn’t get any more agricultural than that and why the county agent didn’t apply an authority to approve similar vendors, it was right then when I heard the words, “Ms. Lange, your time is up.”
So I walked in my skirt and high heels back to the cold, hard wooden pew, where I got the distinct impression that that’s exactly where they felt I belonged, and I died that little mini death of confusion and befuddlement and I felt that warm, hot feeling that rises up the back of your neck when you’re misunderstood and not heard and not seen and basically told to shut up. And oh by the way, why did you come at all?
But then something even more terrible happened. Absolutely nothing. Silence. Not a question, not a comment, not a discourse, not a chastisement, not advice, not a clarification, not an explanation, not a peep, not anything at all except for some strange, knowing glances between those in suits.
Certainly not discussion about the anticipated proposal to create an RFP for the Spring of 2016 that would bid out our local farmers market to any public interest. Not an acknowledgement of my intellectual property, time, ideas, promotions, branding, my energy or everything we together have tirelessly worked to build. Nothing. Insignificant. Unimportant. Not on the agenda. Not up for consideration. Get three Commissioners to agree to revisit.
So much so was my shock, that I remained after session to speak with the Chairman where I asked if he could help me understand why there was no comment at all, and he said plainly that the Board usually doesn’t comment on public comment. Say what? Come again?
And as I was leaving, devoid of anything more to offer to anyone, I looked at General Lee’s face again. Seriously, I looked into his eyes, and I remembered what he once said, “I have been up to see the Congress and they do not seem to be able to do anything except to eat peanuts and chew tobacco, while my army is starving.”