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Wal-Mart Buys San Diego

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It's clear now who is running San Diego.

Wal-Mart needed only 8 weeks and maybe thirty thousand dollars to scare the daylights out of the City Council in San Diego. One local official in San Diego, California called it a "dark day for democracy."

In December of 2010, the City Council voted to override a veto by the Mayor of a zoning ordinance that requires certain big box stores over 90,000 square feet to study their impact on the local economy, on wages, and on traffic. It was a watered down ordinance at best -- but there was one "citizen" who didn't appreciate the City Council vote. Wal-Mart began portraying the ordinance as an outright ban on superstores, and the corporation hired professional signature collectors to put the issue on the San Diego ballot. Wal-Mart knew that San Diego could not financially afford to hold a referendum, so all the folks in Bentonville had to do was throw a head fake. It worked.

Cash-strapped San Diego would have to swallow hard to come up with the $3.4 million cost of a referendum. Wal-Mart put the City Council neatly in a box. The City Council voted 7-1 to rescind the ordinance -- not because they had a change of heart -- but because fighting Wal-Mart was not worth millions of dollars to the Council.

For several years, anti-big box residents have been trying to keep huge stores out of San Diego. In November of 2006, the City Council took an initial vote to ban retail stores of more than 90,000 square feet that use 10% of their interior space to sell groceries or other merchandise that is not subject to sales tax. This ordinance was modeled on similar ordinances in California -- most notably Turlock -- where Wal-Mart failed repeatedly to challenge the law in the courts.

Predictably, Wal-Mart threatened a voter referendum on the big box ban in San Diego. The Mayor of San Diego, Jerry Sanders, told reporters at the time that he would veto the new cap if it went through its required second vote. In early June, 2007, the Council took its final vote to pass the new ordinance. Mayor Sanders vetoed it, and Wal-Mart threatened that it would hire people to gather signatures to put the measure on the ballot in the form of a referendum.

Wal-Mart's threat was enough. One Councilor switched her vote for the ban, to against the ban. The San Diego Union-Tribune called this change of heart a "surprise twist." The vote on the override was a 4-4 tie, so the Mayor's veto killed the big box ordinance. The head of the San Diego Neighborhood Market Association, which represents 2,000 small businesses in the city, said her group was disappointed by the Council's decision to reverse their vote.

But City Councilors did not give up. They came back with a diluted ordinance that simply required large stores to conduct impact studies before being permitted. They said they wanted to "put something in place that also protects small businesses by doing an economic impact report and allowing the communities to have a greater oversight of that process."

Repeating history, Mayor Jerry Sanders vetoed the milder economic impact legislation at the end of November, 2010. "I do not believe it is the City's role to determine where consumers may shop or to provide a competitive advantage to certain retail businesses," Sanders said in his veto message.

Councilor Todd Gloria, who was the lead sponsor of the economic impact ordinance, needed to round up five votes for the measure. This time around, the City Council voted to override Mayor Sanders, and the new ordinance was on the books. But well before the override vote, Wal-Mart began its menacing behavior. The retailer took out full page ads in the Union-Tribune saying the City Council was just carrying water for the unions, and urging San Diego voters to "be a voice for choice."

By mid-December Wal-Mart had launched what the newspaper called "a furious campaign" to gather at least 31,000 signatures to overturn the ordinance. The Arkansas-based corporation hired private firms to gather signatures for them as shoppers left other Wal-Mart stores in the area. Their professional gatherers amassed 54,000 signatures in no time.

Because there were no elections slated in 2011, the city would have to hold a special election, and taxpayers would pick up as much as $3.4 million for Wal-Mart's vote. Wal-Mart's opponents called on the company to pay for the referendum -- since it was the company which stood to gain hundreds of millions in new sales if the big box law was overturned. But the chances of having Wal-Mart foot the bill were as dim as finding Sam Walton selling moon pies in aisle 12.

This week, the City Council once again caved to Wal-Mart. The vote to repeal their November ordinance was 7-1. City Council President Tony Young pointed out all the better uses the city could find for $3 million. "It's been a really tough fight," he told the Associated Press, "but we also have to keep in mind that we do have a fiduciary responsibility to the city of San Diego."

After the vote, Wal-Mart was puffed up like someone who had just won a big pot at Texas Hold'em -- with nothing in the hole. "Thanks to this vote," a company spokesperson said, "we will be able to provide the people of San Diego with improved access to affordable and fresh food, particularly for those living in underserved neighborhoods."

The lone holdout was City Councilor Marti Emerald, who told her constituents, "My vote is not for sale." And Councilor Todd Gloria, who had championed the watered-down ordinance, could only mutter: "Let's be clear, this is a dark day for democracy."

Wal-Mart has fought similar ordinances across the country, arguing that local officials have no right to limit the "freedom to shop," as if this was enshrined in the Bill of Rights somewhere. The company's attempts to challenge such laws in the courts have all failed, so buying elections is the next best option--and less costly. With corporate free speech a bottomless well, fighting Wal-Mart is like going up against a candidate with a massive campaign war chest. Wal-Mart's attitude is that they are too big to fail.

For now, San Diego has been bought and sold by a large corporation. But the day after the vote, a State Senator from San Diego, Juan Vargas, vowed to submit legislation in Sacramento that would accomplish the same goal as the short-lived San Diego law.

"What I did not like," the Senator told the Union-Tribune, "was that one company and one company alone had the power to scare the City Council into changing its mind and that is what happened. That's not right. That's not the way government should work. One company should not have the power to do that."

When Wal-Mart learned of Vargas' initiative, the company told the media that state lawmakers should focus on solving "the state budget woes" instead of "trying to thwart the will of the people." But Wal-Mart should keep its corporate money out of politics, and go back to selling cheap underwear. Cities and towns have the right to limit the scale of large projects, as a way to mitigate adverse impacts on local businesses, traffic, and property values. It's a fundamental local control power.

To "Citizen" Wal-Mart, everything is for sale -- including public policy. If the company doesn't like your local laws, it will lay out some cash to change them. The large retailer's intrusion into local, state and national politics has indeed brought 'dark days' to our democracy.

Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters, and author of "The Case Against Wal-Mart," and "Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart." His website, http://www.sprawl-busters.com, can also be found on Facebook.