St. George leaders sided with the Downtown Farmers Market in a dispute over drag stalls

St George • Despite fierce opposition in some corners over a drag event, borough council members decided Thursday not to scrap the city’s sponsorship of the downtown Farmers Market.

St. George City Council members voted 4-1 to extend the sponsorship for an additional six months, which essentially means granting co-owners of the market, Kat Puzey and Ashley Tiller, fee waivers to allow them to host their weekly event in Vernon can continue to Worth Park.

The vote came after Councilwoman Michelle Tanner claimed Puzey and Tiller used the market, which she described as a taxpayer-supported event because the city waived fees to use the park, to promote drag events.

Tanner’s objection was based on a Mrs. Claus drag stand that operated over Thanksgiving Day weekend at Mofaco — a farm and artisan co-op owned by Puzey — in a curtained-off area behind the private shop. The booth was part of a Small Business Saturday event that included the Farmers Market held on the same day.

“It’s against community standards when you promote drag Mrs. Claus and drag elves behind a closed curtain [to] Come sit on her lap for money to raise funds for drag shows for all ages in the community,” Tanner told Puzey at the gathering in the packed council chambers.

She also accused Farmer Market organizers of discriminating against Your Health Freedom Dixie for not allowing the anti-vaccination group to attend the weekly event.

Puzey countered that the group misled organizers and did not comply with the Farmer Market’s bylaws, which require vendors to sell their own art or crafts. As for the photo booth, she said it consisted of a woman dressed as Mrs. Claus and two elves and took place in an area screened off from the store front or the public by a curtain. Shoppers could have their picture taken with Mrs. Claus and leave a tip in a glass.

She also took issue with Tanner’s claim that she abused the sponsorship to promote inappropriate events in her own business. She said she did not pay Southern Utah Drag Stars to operate the booth, adding that no funds from the nonprofit farmers market were used to promote the drag booth, which was advertised separately.

Tanner’s allegations drew sharp criticism from Councilwoman Dannielle Larkin and Mayor Michele Randall, who accused her of intentionally mischaracterizing the nature of the drag booth and politicizing the sponsorship issue.

Larkin said she went to the drag photo booth, which had nothing to do with what Tanner claimed.

“The way Councilwoman Tanner just described it is a completely mischaracterization of what happened,” she said. “It wasn’t like that at all. We need to get back to the reason we are here, which is the farmers market.”

For her part, Mayor Randall berated Tanner for the discrimination lawsuit, noting that the market was reserved for farmers, bakers and artisans.

“Those are the only three things you should have with you, Kat,” Randall said. “I don’t want to see an NRA booth or an anti-gun booth. I don’t want to see a pro Joe Biden booth or [a] Pro-Donald Trump stand. I want it to remain politically neutral.”

Before Thursday’s meeting, both supporters and opponents of the Downtown Farmers Market sponsorship renewal were active to rally support on social media. Tanner, for example, has posted on the Liberty Action Coalition website and has been a guest on conservative radio host Kate Dalley’s podcast.

Speaking about the drag booth at Mofaco on Dalley’s show, Tanner said that sponsoring a company involves the city in any decisions made by owners or furthers ideological views they espouse.

“And let’s get that straight,” she said. “I would also think it would be inappropriate if they encouraged, ‘Come sit on the laps of the LDS missionaries behind a closed curtain so that we… give your child a Book of Mormon and raise money for whatever religion be able.’ “

Tanner’s posts on social media upset many at the gathering, which was heavily attended by members of the LGBTQ community and their supporters.

“Your campaign platform was less about government and about upholding liberty, and you’re doing the opposite of both,” Elise West told Tanner. “You have not been elected guardian of morals.”

Resident Greg Prince spoke about the importance of inclusion in his remarks to the Council.

“Fear of difference, when lived out in public spaces, becomes a cancer that can destroy cities and societies,” he said. “St. George deserves better. We have much to gain from inclusion and much to lose from exclusion. Put my name on the list of those defending my LGBTQ sisters and brothers and their constitutional right to free speech.”

August Nelson reminded the council of HBO’s drag show We’re Here, which some council members tried to quash last summer.

“This councilman has already attempted to remove drag from urban spaces. Now they want to remove it from the private ones. I couldn’t think of a more exasperating and desperate sequel,” Nelson said.

Steve Brazell, a St. George media and brand strategist hired by Tanner, tried to counter claims by some in the queer community that drag shows are about love and inclusion by reading hate mail that his client had received. But after Randall read out loud the “F” bombs and the “C word” in the alleged social media posts, Randall cut him off and told him to watch his speech.

In extending the sponsorship, Council members agreed to study the issue of sponsorship over the next six months to better define what entails, who should receive it, and how best to exempt groups from waivers.

The Downtown Farmers Market receives no cash from the community treasury, but benefits from nearly $50,000 in annual fee waivers — $400 per week for use of the park, $150 per week for a special events license, and a 5-week sublicense fee US dollars that providers would have to pay.

Puzey and Tiller said the fee waivers allow them to keep booth prices down for vendors, many of whom are young farmers and artists who otherwise couldn’t afford to come to the market.

Larkin said the market’s benefit to the community is invaluable as it serves as an incubator for artists, farmers and startups to grow and contribute to the economy.

The Downtown Farmers Market has been a mainstay in St. George for the past 15 years. Puzey bought the company four years ago and now shares ownership with Tiller. The market has grown from around 40 vendors to over 100 on a good weekend in recent years.

“We’re so excited. And we love this community and we’re going to keep fighting because we love and believe in what’s local,” Tiller said. St. George leaders sided with the Downtown Farmers Market in a dispute over drag stalls

Justin Scacco

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