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Why Did City Council Repeal Supercenter Ordinance?


Earlier this week, the San Diego City Council voted 7-1 to repeal its supercenter ordinance. The ordinance required supercenter retailers to conduct an economic impact study in order to get building permits. The council reversed its decision after Walmart's successful signature-gathering would have forced a public vote on the issue. We discuss why two councilmembers changed their vote.

Earlier this week, the San Diego City Council voted 7-1 to repeal its supercenter ordinance. The ordinance required supercenter retailers to conduct an economic impact study in order to get building permits. The council reversed its decision after Walmart's successful signature-gathering would have forced a public vote on the issue. We discuss why two councilmembers changed their vote.


JW August, managing editor for 10 News

David Rolland, editor of San Diego CityBeat

Kent Davy, editor of the North County Times

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

PENNER: A seasoned politician knows that if you can't get what you want from a body of elected officials such as a City Council or a state legislature, you go directly to the people. In the case of Wal-Mart's fight with the San Diego City Council, all it took to win was the threat to go for a public vote. So JW, what did Wal-Mart want from the San Diego City Council in the first place?

AUGUST: They wanted to leave them alone. They didn't want them to pass an ordinance and require, like, an impact study when a super store goes in. They did not want to see the city requiring that, and whatever Wal-Mart wants, Wal-Mart gets.

PENNER: All the time? 100 percent of the time.

AUGUST: They win most of their battles. They win a lot of them, sometimes they get beat up, but I was looking in the background of their history when they take these to vote, actually when Wal-Mart's forced an initiative, and they've won 80 percent of them. So they know what you're doing. They got a good game plan. I certainly don't agree with their tactics. I don't like people who use scare tactics, especially in full page ads in the newspaper, and you know, are you still beating your mother type of advertisements, like Marty Emerald, are you still beating your mother? Yeah, that type of thing. And then hiring professional signature gatherers to get the signatures to get the initiative.

PENNER: Kent Davy, is that how you understand the corporate giant's political strategy?

DAVY: Well, actually to sum it up, that's right. It's to use whatever tools it has at its hand. And in a kind of reverse to that, in Menifee last year in southwest Riverside County, the City Council appeared to be lined up to approve an expansion of a Wal-Mart into a super center, and there, after the planning commission said yes, Wal-Mart were you its petition. It said it would rather go to the voters and have a ballot initiative on it. And I think if I recall the history of this, that's where the status of that is right now. The -- with regard to JW's comment, however, the California initiative process is exactly what he has just described, in which people over state whatever it is the ill that they're going after, and then use it to go get paid signatures to get their point of view on the ballot, and then beat up on the public until somebody either passes or fails it. So I don't see that Wal-Mart is doing anything that anybody else doesn't do.

PENNER: David role and.

ROLLAND: Yeah, JW is alluding to something that's pretty interesting. I think he's referring to did a story recently where they talked about five initiate itches since 2002 where Wal-Mart was basically taking on a city, and in four of those cases, Wal-Mart won. And what the commonality there between all those four cases is that Wal-Mart was -- whenever they sought a no answer from the public, they won. So if they were -- and they can turn the question around however they want it. So in this case, they would have said, do you like the City Council's ordinance that they just passed? This you know, which would probably result in ritual sacrifice of small bunnies. People would say, no, we don't like that, and then they would win. So whenever they want it -- they can win whenever they want, as long as they're trying to get the public to say no.

PENNER: Kent Davy.

DAVY: Case in point of Wal-Mart losing however is San Marcos probably 5 or 6 years ago, maybe, it's been more than that now. In which San Marcos City Council all lined up in favor of putting a Wal-Mart in the southwest corner of San Marcos, public neighborhood support rose up again, a big campaign and nay lost that one.

PENNER: They did lose that one.

DAVY: Absolutely. And there's condos where mount Wal-Mart was gonna be.

PENNER: Okay. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. 895 KPBS. Well, as you heard, Wal-Mart won with the San Diego City Council. The vote actually was 7 to 1, only one counsel member said I'm not going with the Wal-Mart side of it, and that was counsel member Marty Emerald. Two other council members, Tony Young and Todd Gloria reversed their stand. They had ordinarily -- originally decided that they were going to vote, that an economic impact study was required before Wal-Mart or any super center was built in San Diego. And then on this vote, they voted to repeal that economic impact study vote. So there we are, that lays out the politics for you, and I'd like to know your thoughts on it, what's your opinion? Do you believe that Wal-Mart deserved to win this round or that it's politics as usual? Our number again, 1-888-895-5727. And Allison from Tierra Santa is joining us now. Allison, welcome to the Editors Roundtable.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, good morning. First, moved here from a very small county in Georgia. We had 40000 people total. We had three grocery stores and a Wal-Mart. In one town of that county. And all of them flourished. And it was a super Wal-Mart. So I think it's great that Wal-Mart did what they did, because the consumers should be allowed to make the choice where they want to shop. I can get my skin care products anywhere I want, I'm gonna get them at Wal-Mart because they're cheaper. That's all I have to say as a consumer.

PENNER: Okay, thank you Allison. So you really have a couple of things going, who really opposed, JW, who was in the opposition to the idea of Wal-Mart building in San Diego?

AUGUST: Environmentalists, small businesses, and the unions, this was another one of those dramas behind the scenes involving when the union had enough clout to -- the union, you know, with their employees who are working at the local retailers, Ralph's, and the other stores, and Vons, they didn't want to see Wal-Mart come in. So this struggle was going on behind the scenes. And the union didn't win this battle, sort of. They may be back in the game much quicker than anybody anticipated.

PENNER: David Rolland.

ROLLAND: Yeah, this idea of competition that the caller brings up, you can look at it both ways. You can say, oh, I have a right to shop anywhere I want, but there's plenty of anecdotal evidence out there that when Wal-Mart comes into a community, it drives small businesses out. So you can make the case that it is also anti-competition because you're essentially creating monopolies in neighborhoods.

PENNER: Kent Davy.

ROLLAND: And driving down your -- she also says, well, if she's gonna choose it because the prices are lower, you're driving down prices, you're also driving down wages, and the over all -- my problem with Wal-Mart, it has nothing to do with union wages at grocery stores. Might have problem is a much -- a more global issue, and that is Wal-Mart is almost single handedly help -- it's helping to drive merchandising out of this country. You drive down prices so far that manufacturers can't keep up with those low prices so they have to reduce their costs so much that they have to take their labor outside this country.


DAVY: The flaw in David's argument, I think, is this. That is, we're talking about Wal-Mart super centers, we're not talking about Wal-Marts. Wal-Marts are ubiquitous, I think in American community. Including San Diego of smaller size. This is when Wal-Mart wants to come in and super size its store to include not only all of its manufactured goods, which come from China and other places around the world that David's talking to, but all of its grocery line. And one of the interesting things about it is, that whenever this has been studied, when a Wal-Mart super center comes in, it drives grocery prices down, arguably, therefore, it really does help poor people.

PENNER: Okay. Our phone lines are really full now, so let's hear from mark in San Diego. Mark, you're on with the editors.



NEW SPEAKER: So my -- the discussion is not about whether one Wal-Mart is big or union wages, [CHECK AUDIO].

PENNER: I'm sorry, I didn't quite get that, mark. Ask your question again.

NEW SPEAKER: Sure, the issue is that the impact analysis, the economic impact analysis was repealed, right?


PENNER: Kent Davy.

DAVY: So what I don't understand is what is wrong with that? Do you expect, like, do we trust this body of lawmakers, that mess up so many economic issues to do our correct economic impact analysis this time?

PENNER: Okay, I think I got it. All right, Kent Davy?

DAVY: My take on that would be this, the economic impact analysis was another hurdle for another government to put up in order to drive and keep Wal-Mart fended away or pushed away, because they had an additional level of regulatory cost and structure to it. I don't know what we're kind of requirements that had in terms of what the -- were their triggers inside the impact, thing. But one thing that's interesting about this, it's a philosophical issue, and that is, what role does government have in choosing win ares and losers? After all governments allow Home Depots to come in and squash Ace Hardware stores all over the place. This is just another iteration of that at a different level.

PENNER: Let me ask this question, Kent, before you settle back, what kind of persuasive pressure could a major corporation bring to bear on a local elected official to get this kind of change of heart that we saw that happened in the San Diego City Council?

DAVY: Well, if you're asking me to speculate, I guess I can dream up all sorts of things.

PENNER: That's why you're here.

DAVY: Campaign money, there are perhaps allusions of well, we'll find a candidate to run against you. You know.

PENNER: JW, you want to add to that.

AUGUST: Well, there's lots of ways, but it would all be speculation too, that they can apply pressure to local politicians. You know, they had a moment, had one of those Jimmy Stewart moments like when Mr. Smith goes to Washington, where they kind of stood on that floor and said, you know what? Bring that election on! You're not afraid, you're not gonna threaten us with a $2 million election. Of and they could have done that, but they didn't do that.

PENNER: Well, are the interesting thing about the cost of that election is that the cost itself is questioned. Of 2 or $3 million to hold's special election for Wal-Mart? But it was brought up, and I believe it was brought up by Juan Vargas when he decided to introduce a bill calling for economic impact studies in sacking that if this is combined with the election that Jerry Brown is calling for, that it would only cost a couple of hundred thousand.

ROLLAND: Actually, sorry to cut you off there, I was anxiety to get in on that, during the City Council hearing this week, city clerk Liz may land touched on that herself. So it was before Vargas came out with his proposal. She said that if there is a special -- a state wide special election, a Wal-Mart election would be consolidated with that, and it could cost as little as 800 this happened. She it between -- it's not a perfect science, she didn't know the exact number. It could be somewhere between $801.1 million to consolidate with a special election. I just think, you know, it's interesting if you look back, what happened 3 or 4 years ago, when they had an outright, I think -- I believe it was an outright ban on super centers, Donna Frye changed, if you remember, Donna Frye changed her vote at the last minute in the 11th hour reasoning that she thought that, again, Wal-Mart would take it to the ballot, Wal-Mart was crush the city, and making the whole point moot. In this case she voted for the ordinance on her way out of City Council. But I think it's essential leer the same thing. You have the same result. That she was predicting before where she was arguing this instead of taking them on AT&T ballot box, you take them on one by one, neighborhood by neighborhood on a planning basis.

PENNER: Many thanks to mark for his phone call, we're gonna come back and take more of your calls right after this break as we continue discussing Wal-Mart in San Diego. This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner.

This is the Editors Roundtable, I'm Gloria Penner. This week, Wal-Mart was able to win seven to within, that's seven council members voted to repeal an ordinance that would have required an economic impact study before Wal-Mart or any other large grocery chain retailer, actually. Could build in San Diego. And that was repealed. And only one council member voted against the appeal, and that was Marty Emerald. So we're talking about that, and we're talking about where Wal-Mart goes from here. And why there are concerns about Wal-Mart expanding in San Diego. With me at the round table are Kent Davy, he's with the New York Times, and with ten news, we have JW August, and from San Diego City beat, David Rolland. And now on the line we have Shoshana from El Cajon. Shoshana, welcome to These Days. Welcome to Editors Roundtable.



NEW SPEAKER: Thank you. I'm so thrilled to be on. Listen, I don't think unions should be a bad word. If there weren't union, a lot of us wouldn't have an eight-hour day, we wouldn't have sick leave, we wouldn't have pay, and a lot of people who are nonunion jobs wouldn't have those things either because they wouldn't be able to point to a union, and say, look, how come that lady gets sick leave and pregnancy reef, and family leave acts? And Wal-Mart has done nothing traditionally for the communities in which it has been a participant. Their [CHECK AUDIO] notoriously [CHECK AUDIO] request seek WIC or unemployment benefit, they have not supported people, they have not supported American merchandise, they injure the communities in which they inhabit, and it's a disgrace that the council members turned their back on the citizens of San Diego. If they did take the time to intellectually do that study, it would have turned up these things. My son who -- when he was in high school, he e-mailed -- did a report on Wal-Mart because he didn't want me to shop there. He was trying to convince his mother, mom, you're not saving money. So I said do a report. And he did this report and here's what he learned that a lot of the workers at Wal-Mart are former desert storm or military unemployed military people who can't find work anywhere so they don't have the kind of skills that translate easily to the civilian community.

PENNER: Okay. Well, I thank you very much, Shoshana, for that, I'm gonna ask the editors to hold their comments until after we hear from Steve in North Park. Then we'll hear what the editors have to say about Shoshana's arguments. Steve, you're on with the editors.

NEW SPEAKER: Thanks for taking my call. My comment isn't actually about Wal-Mart, it's about the City Council of San Diego. We heard yesterday some City Council members say that democracy has failed as a result of Wal-Mart's supposedly pressure to bring this issue to bear. And I think that that just shows that the City Council is completely disconnected from the people of San Diego. If anything, democracy succeeded. The City Council proposed a unpopular ordinance, and the people got together to sign up and threatened to overturn this law in a special election. And it just boggles my mind that the City Council has never learned that they need to represent the people or the people will rise up at the ballot box and overturn their laws.

PENNER: Thank you very much, Steve. You know, shades of the people rising up, you can't help but think about Egypt, can you?

AUGUST: Oh, I don't see it as Egypt at all. I don't agree with Steve. Initiatives are a plague on the State of California. We hired our legislatures and City Council people to do our work for us. And this is not democracy in action at all. It's capitalism in action, though. And we live in a capitalistic society. But I do want to address Shoshana, you may be interested to know that Wal-Mart has signed a deal with the union. It's in norm city, and they've hired union contractors for building stores. That's the good side. The bad side is they absolutely can screw the AFL-CIO. So they signed with a smaller union to build their stores so I imagine they're gonna use that in their campaign now that, hey, we have union people working for us.

PENNER: Interesting, JW, do you feel that the unions in San Diego are losing some power? Is.

AUGUST: Well, we destroy that in channel ten, and I got some nasty feedback because I found out that the firemen's union pulled out of the trade union, that the over all umbrella group.

PENNER: The labor council?

DAVY: Yeah, they pulled out of the labor council, and the story was, are they losing clout? And they don't think that they are. And I got a couple of phone calls, hey, look, Juan Vargas stepped up to the plate on this, it shows that the union has some clout, that they think they can get things done.

PENNER: Your final comment, Kent Davy.

DAVY: The union issue, I think, is interesting, but I think it gets masked in conversation generally. Because much of the people conversation about unions has to do with public unions for government workers. And where all the union growth has been, American union participation in private sectors been declining for years now. And it would seem it me that the issue between Wal-Mart and a union is it's the two private entities trying to figure out its relationship. A private business and private work uppers represented by a union. And those are all fine things.

PENNER: Okay. David?

ROLLAND: Yeah, democracy didn't fail, it didn't succeed. Everything that has happened is allowed by law. Everybody did what they're allowed to do. Of the council is allowed to do what it did, and Wal-Mart's allowed to do what it did, but look. That last call are's comment about the people rose up, that's bull. What happened with Wal-Mart rose up. And paid people to gather 50000 signatures out of -- there's 1.3 million people in San Diego. So to call this some crazy -- some grass-roots up rising is nonsense. Wal-Mart was allowed to get that many signatures and force a ballot, an election, are that's what they did.

PENNER: And nay did it legally.


PENNER: There's nothing illegal about it.

ROLLAND: But the problem with a lot of these signature gathering experiences is that they can tell people out in front of the grocery store anything they want. There are no monitors out there making sure that they tell people what the actual ordinance did.

DAVY: If you noticed, every time an initiative comes on the ballot, it is always save the children initiative. Doesn't matter what it is. It could be about books and mortar or sand on the beach.

ROLLAND: Save little old ladies' ability to go buy fresh food. Because if, you know, the City Council has its way, little old ladies won't be able to get fresh fruit, and babies won't be able to get their formula.

AUGUST: Don't kill the puppies.

PENNER: Okay. So at this point in my head, I have little old ladies, children, and puppies, and it's time to move on. And thanks for everybody who called on this, and I do urge you to go to, and you can post your comment, and I promise I'm gonna read them today, I really am.

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