St. George leaders side with Downtown Farmers Market in dispute over drag booth

By a 4-1 margin, St. George City Council members voted to renew the sponsorship for another six months.

(Ashley Tiller) The St. George Downtown Farmers Market in August 2022.

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

By a 4-1 margin, St. George City Council members voted to renew the sponsorship for another six months, which essentially entails granting fee waivers to market co-owners Kat Puzey and Ashley Tiller so they could continue to operate their weekly event at Vernon Worthen Park.

The vote came after Councilwoman Michelle Tanner alleged that Puzey and Tiller used the market, which she characterized as a taxpayer-supported event due to the city waiving the fees for the use of the park, to promote drag events.

Tanner’s objections were based on a Mrs. Claus drag booth that operated at Mofaco — a farm and artisan co-op Puzey owns — in a curtained-off area in the back of the private business over the Thanksgiving Day weekend. The booth was part of a Small Business Saturday event that included the Farmers Market that took place that same day.

“It does violate community standards if you are behind a closed curtain promoting drag Mrs. Claus and drag elves [to] come sit on their laps in exchange for money to raise funds for all-age drag shows in the community,” Tanner told Puzey at the meeting 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 participate in the weekly event.

Puzey countered the group misled organizers and did not conform to Farmer Market bylaws that require vendors to sell their own art or handicrafts. 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 storefront or public view by a curtain. Shoppers could have their pictures taken with Mrs. Claus and leave a tip in a jar.

She also took issue with Tanner’s assertion she was misusing the sponsorship to cross-promote inappropriate events at her own store. She said she didn’t pay Southern Utah Drag Stars to operate the booth and added that no funds from the nonprofit farmers market were used to promote the drag booth, which was advertised separately.

Tanner’s allegations drew a stinging rebuke from Councilwoman Dannielle Larkin and Mayor Michele Randall, who accused her of deliberately mischaracterizing the nature of the drag booth and politicizing the sponsorship issue.

Larkin said she went to the drag photo booth, which was nothing like what Tanner was alleging.

“The way Councilwoman Tanner just described it is a complete mischaracterization of what happened,” she said. “That is not at all what it was like. We need to get back to the reason why we’re here, which is the Farmers Market.”

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

“Those are the only three things you should have there, 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 booth. I want it to remain politically neutral.”

Before Thursday’s meeting, both supporters and opponents of renewing the sponsorship for Downtown Farmers Market were active in drumming up support on social media. Tanner, for example, posted on the Liberty Action Coalition’s web page and was a guest on a conservative radio host Kate Dalley’s podcast.

In talking about the drag booth at Mofaco on Dalley’s show, Tanner said sponsoring a business ties the city into whatever decisions owners make or ideological views they promote.

“And let’s be clear,” she said. “I would also think it was inappropriate if they promoted, ‘come sit on the LDS missionaries’ laps behind a closed curtain so we can give … your child a Book of Mormon and raise money for whatever religion.’ "

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

“Your campaign platform included less government and preserving freedom, and you are doing the opposite of both,” Elise West told Tanner. “You are not elected to be the guardian of morality.”

Resident Greg Prince talked about the importance of inclusion in his remarks to the council.

“Fear of otherness, if acted out in the public square, 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 who defend my LGBTQ sisters and brothers and their constitutional right to freely express themselves.”

August Nelson reminded the council of the HBO “We’re Here” drag show some on the council tried to quash last summer.

“This City Council already tried to get rid of drag from city-owned spaces. Now they want to remove it from private ones. I could not think of a more infuriating and despairing follow-up,” Nelson said.

Steve Brazell, a St. George media and brand strategist retained by Tanner, attempted to counter the assertion by some in the queer community that drag shows were about love and inclusion by reading hate mail he said his client had received. But after reading aloud the “F” bombs and the “C-word” in the purported social media posts, Randall cut him off and told him to watch his language.

In renewing the sponsorship, council members agreed to examine the sponsorship issue over the next six months to better define what it entails, who should receive them and how best to wean groups off of waivers.

Downtown Farmers Market does not receive any cash from municipal coffers but benefits from nearly $50,000 in annual fee waivers — $400 weekly for use of the park, $150 weekly for a special event license and a $5 weekly sub-licensing fee vendors would have to pay.

Puzey and Tiller said the fee waivers enable them to keep booth prices low for vendors, many of whom are fledging farmers and artists who otherwise could not afford to come to the market.

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

Downtown Farmers Market has been a mainstay in St. George for 15 years. Puzey bought the business four years ago and now shares ownership with Tiller. The market has blossomed over the past several years from about 40 vendors to more than 100 on a good weekend.

“We are so excited. And we love this community and we will still keep fighting because we love and believe in local,” Tiller said.