Residents in San Diego, California will not be protected from big box stores after all. On June 5, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart was threatening a voter referendum on a big box ban in San Diego, because of their unhappiness with a size cap on retail stores passed by the city council. A series of city council votes, stretching back to last November, had prompted Wal-Mart to threaten city officials that if the size cap ordinance passed, the retailer would gather signatures to try to repeal the measure using the ballot. In November, 2006, the city council took its first major step towards imposing a cap on the size of retail buildings when it voted 5-3 to ban retail stores of more than 90,000 s.f. that use 10% of their interior space to sell groceries or other merchandise that is not subject to sales tax. This ordinance is modeled on similar ordinances in California — most notably Turlock — where Wal-Mart has failed repeatedly to challenge the law in the courts. 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 January. The second reading of the ordinance was delayed from the original January date, so that the public could have time to comment. San Diego’s ordinance was seen as a pre-emptive strike, since the city currently has no Wal-Mart supercenter. But local sources indicate that Wal-Mart was ready to add several supercenters in San Diego. In early June, 2007, the city council took its final vote to pass the new ordinance on a 5-3 vote. Mayor Sanders made it clear he would veto it, and to further intimidate the city council, Wal-Mart indicated that they would hire people to gather signatures to put the measure on the ballot in the form of a referendum. This would not appear before voters until February, 2008 — another nine month delay for Wal-Mart. But yesterday, in response to the Mayor’s veto, in what the San Diego Union-Tribune called a “surprise twist,” one Councilor, Donna Frye, switched her opposition, and voted with the Mayor. This made the vote on override a 4-4 tie, which does not prevail. Frye told the media she wants to work on a new version of the law that will require big box stores to study their economic impacts on other businesses. “I heard from many, many people that want to have that choice,” she told the Union-Tribune, “and I think there’s a way to give people that choice, to hopefully 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.” The head of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 135, said he was shocked when he heard the rumors that Frye was switching sides. He said union members flooded her office with phone calls in protest. “I think she turned her back on working people,” he said. “I think she turned her back on her constituents, and quite frankly I think she proved that she doesn’t have the guts to stand up to the mayor or stand up for her constituents.” One of Frye’s constituents was quoted by the newspaper as saying, “These things are environmental abominations and you have no idea what you’re giving up by not overturning the veto,” he said. “They have horrible traffic impacts, horrible noise impacts, horrible air quality impacts. They are energy hogs, and they are not compatible with the neighborhood concept this city wants to have.” The head of the San Diego Neighborhood Market Association, which represents 2,000 small businesses in the city, said her group was disappointed by Frye’s decision.
There was ample speculation in San Diego this week about the political jockeying that went on behind the scenes with this key vote. Next June, Mayor Sanders is up for reelection, plus 4 city council seats. Wal-Mart is likely to make substantial political contributions to keep the Mayor and the other councilors who supported his veto in office. Although the Union-Tribune described the political fallout in largely Democratic vs. Republican terms, that is completely off the mark. Wal-Mart has been giving a lot more money to Democrats over the past few years, and is guided more by who are its friends, than what their party is. Wal-Mart has hired high-level Democratic operatives to run their image campaign nationally. Wal-Mart will be very generous to Mayor Sanders, and to Councilor Frye, Kevin Faulconer, Jim Madaffer and Brian Maienschein, who all voted with the Mayor. For Wal-Mart, this is about building stores, not about party politics. There are 5 Democrats on the city council now, including Frye. Her suggestion that the city scrap its four year effort to pass a big box ordinance, and shift instead to one that merely requires some kind of economic impact report, is a major retreat on her part from the issue. Economic impact studies are fine, but on their own can be a weak or limited approach. More importantly, it could take years for this city to pass another ordinance. In the meantime, Frye and the council will find themselves embroiled in one or two ugly site fights that will tear their city apart. If people in San Diego think this ordinance was divisive, wait until Wal-Mart submits its first superstore proposal. Cases in which one vote turns the issue are very frustrating. The 4-4 vote on the override suggests that San Diego this week is a split community, and despite Wal-Mart’s efforts this week to intimidate Council members with the threat of a referendum, the battles ahead for Wal-Mart will be even worse. Readers are urged to contact the city councilors who voted for Wal-Mart, and tell them: “Your vote will end up narrowing consumer choice in San Diego, and will hurt smaller merchants. You should put a six month moratorium on big box stores now until you come up with a new ordinance.” You can email this message to: [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; and [email protected]