Pike Place Market News editor Michael FitzPatrick promised he'd turn the paper into something more than a shopping circular when he took over 10 months ago, and boy, did he deliver. Lately, the 12-page monthly—published by the Pike Place Market Merchants Association—has read more like a political scandal sheet. Merchants' gripes about Market policies (among them increasing rents and heavy-handed management) have gotten front-page treatment, while editorials written by FitzPatrick have questioned not only the motives of the Market's landlord—the Preservation and Development Authority (PDA)—but even the legitimacy of his own employer, the Merchants Association's board of directors. In one column, FitzPatrick accused the board of holding onto power illegally and snuffing out the efforts of the general membership to organize against the PDA.
By June, the board had had enough of FitzPatrick's rabble-rousing. That month, the board told FitzPatrick that future issues of the paper would have to meet with their approval before they could be published. FitzPatrick cried censorship, refused to agree, and was fired.
Then things really got interesting.
The Merchants Association membership rallied behind FitzPatrick at its last meeting—July 17— voting overwhelmingly for his reinstatement. They also called for new board elections, claiming that some board members were elected illegitimately. But the board has refused to rehire FitzPatrick or schedule any new elections for the rest of the year.
The battle escalated from standoff to confrontation on July 19, when Fitzpatrick's wife, Miriam, who has served as the News' associate editor, tried to gain access to the Merchants Association office and was held at bay by board president Chris Barndt and executive director Betty Halfon. Market security personnel had to intervene.
Since then, Michael FitzPatrick has been airing some of the Merchants Association's dirty laundry, revealing that several of his paychecks had bounced because of the association's financial problems. (At the meeting in July, the board admitted that the association is at least $35,000 in debt.) FitzPatrick has requested an investigation by the state attorney general.
In response, more than half of the Merchants Association board has resigned. They've also hired legal counsel, fearing a lawsuit from FitzPatrick, and won't comment publicly about the fracas. "We got sick and tired of [the merchants'] crap," one former member said.
The voluntary board, which was re-established in January after several months of inactivity, has claimed that it's trying to find ways to persuade the PDA to be more responsive to merchants' complaints. But the introduction of a "no-confidence" resolution against the PDA in February created an ugly rift between the Merchants Association's membership and its board. The board tried to postpone a vote on the resolution, while the membership, spurred on by FitzPatrick's editorials in the News, demanded immediate action.
FitzPatrick says the disagreement over the no- confidence resolution represented a difference in attitude between Market merchants who are struggling financially and those sitting on the board who are better off and want to avoid trouble with the landlord. The Merchants Association board has failed to represent its membership, he says. "[Merchants] are coming up to me, the newspaper editor, and asking for help they should be getting from the board of directors," says FitzPatrick, a longtime Market vendor.
At least one (now former) board member repudiates that claim, saying the board hasn't tried to squash the efforts of ailing merchants, only to channel their anger more productively. "If all you're going to do is squawk and scream, no one takes you seriously," says the board member.
Patrick Kerr is the only board member who supports FitzPatrick's rehiring and new board elections. Kerr says he's stopped paying his Merchants Association dues and is circulating a petition to form a new merchants group.