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Hollywood farmers market CEO is fired

Financial problems and conflicting visions are among the reasons cited in Pompea Smith's dismissal. Reaction among vendors is mixed.

April 06, 2012|David Karp | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • David Karp
David Karp (m1wtelpd20120406075457/600 )

After Pompea Smith, who has led the Hollywood farmers market since she founded it 21 years ago, was fired Tuesday night, many questions remained as to just what had happened, and why. Official details were scant, but it is clear that the story involved financial issues, office politics and conflicting visions for the organization.

The board of Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles the nonprofit organization that runs the market, issued a statement saying that it was "time for a change of leadership," and that it was "deeply grateful to Pompea Smith for her ... inspired leadership of this organization." SEE-LA board members and staff were asked not to speak to the media.

Smith had been told several days before that she might be dismissed, but she insisted on a full vote of the board. At that meeting on Tuesday, the vote was 10-1 in favor of the move, with Smith casting the lone opposing vote. She added, "I'm trying to make a decision whether to fight this legally or not."

Renowned for its wide selection of produce and lively street scene, the Hollywood farmers market is the largest in Los Angeles, with about 150 vendors. As its neighborhood gentrified over the past two decades, the Hollywood market's financial success enabled SEE-LA to subsidize new venues in underserved areas such as Watts and Central Avenue.

SEE-LA now operates eight farmers markets, as well as a farm-to-school program and a restaurant near the Hollywood venue called the Farmers' Kitchen. Each of these operations has a manager who until now has reported to Smith.

The tough times of the last few years have challenged SEE-LA's economic model, as market sales have stagnated and grants have decreased, according to an analysis sent to the board in early March by Essergy Consulting which added that "SEE-LA may require new levels of management and perhaps a more transformational and inclusive management style."

Reactions to Smith's firing by Hollywood market vendors were mixed, but several said that Smith had been overwhelmed by recent crises, including a fight with the Los Angeles Film School over street closure; Smith said that she had been particularly distracted by four recent burglaries of her office, in which computers and equipment were stolen.

Kahmiim Gufur of Roots Brothers Grows, a seller of plants, herbs and lotions, said that he thought that it was time for Smith to go, saying that she had become ineffective in communicating with market vendors and the public.

Vicki Bernard, a citrus grower who has sold at the market since it opened, was conflicted, saying: "I don't think she should have been fired, but it's hard to say for sure without knowing all of the facts, and the board is being pretty tight-lipped. Pompea deserves a lot of credit for opening that market and making it a success. In the beginning she was a very good manager, but in later years she may have had too much on her plate."

Moreover, several of the market managers who reported to her have complained privately in the past year that Smith was difficult to work for and did not give them the necessary authority to make decisions.

Speaking by phone on Thursday, Smith rejected such criticism, saying that "whoever said that don't seem to understand the supervisor-staff relationship."

The Essergy document mentioned the need to attract "a younger, 'hipper' crowd" and to make more use of social media.

Smith responded by saying she thought it was more significant that in 2004 she led the effort to enable the electronic system of food stamps to be used at farmers markets and has been at the forefront of efforts to support sustainable agriculture and empower diverse communities.

The Essergy document questioned whether SEE-LA's growth over the years had "introduced distracting mission creep," very likely referring at least in part to the Farmers' Kitchen, a restaurant and commercial test kitchen that buys most of its produce from Hollywood market farmers. It has been managed by Smith's son, Walter, but is "still losing money," acknowledged his mother.

In any case, Smith was surprised that the board would let her go. "I don't know why they took this turn," she said. "They could have given more guidance. It feels awful and shocking. This is a very stressful time for me."

Asked why things had come to this pass, she mentioned that a recent strategic planning process, of which the Essergy document was a part, had been "a frustrating experience, because the board did not understand the complexities of SEE-LA and its operations."

Michael Woo, chair of SEE-LA's board and dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona, declined to elaborate on the reasons for Smith's dismissal but did say that "it was an extremely difficult decision."

Smith said that she was afraid that her firing would "endanger SEE-LA," but Woo maintained that "this organization is greater than any individual."

Smith, who is in her early 70s, was born in a small farming town northeast of Naples, Italy, and came to the United States when she was 21. She founded the Hollywood market in 1991 and established SEE-LA in 1994.

She definitely intends to remain active in the field of farmers markets and sustainable agriculture, she said.

The SEE-LA board has appointed Brenda Zamzow-Frazier who is described in the statement as "a consultant with extensive experience in nonprofit organization operations and financial management," to serve as interim CEO.

food@latimes.com

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