The Mayor of Linden, New Jersey is a staunch defender of free speech — his own. But when it comes to other people’s First Amendment rights, the Mayor is less enthusiastic.
In an unusual move this week, Mayor Richard Gerbounka, who is a retired police captain in Linden, and has served as Mayor since 2006, used his State of the City speech to urge his constituents to boycott a grocery store.
“I ask you not to shop in the Aviation Plaza ShopRite,” Hizzoner said during his speech. “If you are a loyal ShopRite customer, go to the ShopRite in Clark. ShopRite of Aviation Plaza is costing Linden taxpayers much needed revenue.” According to the My Central New Jersey website, Gerbounka told the media that issuing his call for the boycott was his way of exercising his right to free speech.
What could have rankled the Mayor to urge residents to boycott a grocery store in his city? A bad piece of meat? A cashier who tried to shortchange him? No, it turns out that the Mayor is frustrated with the ShopRite located in Aviation Plaza because the retailer has filed a lawsuit that is blocking one of the Mayor’s key economic development projects for this community of just under 40,000 people. The Mayor’s timetable for the new Wal-Mart has been thrown off by the ShopRite lawsuit.
This project is a classic case of what is happening to the American economy. The 104 acre site that the Mayor wants to use for a Wal-Mart was once a General Motors facility. The auto maker is gone, and the U.S. economy has shifted from decent-paying manufacturing jobs to baggers and clerks in retail chain stores.
“We had hoped that ground would be broken at the former GM site this past spring,” Mayor Gerounka explained, “but ShopRite of Aviation Plaza sued the City of Linden claiming that rezoning of the area for commercial/retail was improper.”
The Mayor has little respect for the free speech rights of local businesses. He believes that ShopRite has a right to legal redress — but only so far. “We prevailed on all counts of the suit in Superior Court,” the Mayor noted, “but ShopRite has appealed his decision to a higher court.” It is not clear who the Mayor thinks should have access to ‘a higher court,’ but clearly it is not ShopRite.
The Mayor, who is a former detective, says he has figured out why ShopRite has filed a legal appeal. “There is no doubt in my mind that their strategy is to delay as long as possible,” Gerbounka told the good people of Linden, “so Super Wal-Mart, one of the anchor stores in this project, gets discouraged and moves on.” During the pendancy of this appeal, neither the Wal-Mart nor the Lowe’s which are slated to anchor the development, have agreed to sign leases.
So the Mayor has decided to throw ShopRite’s free speech under the bus. “There are eight smaller retail stores ready to call Linden home,” the Mayor grouses, “but they will not agree to participate because the anchor stores are not yet committed. At stake is $5.2 million in tax revenue if the entire development was built tomorrow.” The developer of the site, Duke Realty, has reportedly pledged $10 million just to improve the 7 intersections that state transportation officials say must be upgraded.
In a contest between the legal rights of a business vs. $5.2 million in taxes, Mayor Gerbounka knows which side he’s on.
The Mayor is using a gross tax revenue figure that he got from Wal-Mart. The actual taxes that Linden will see will be lowered by the revenues lost as other competitors in the city, like ShopRite, close their doors. Jobs will be lost, families will be applying for unemployment or welfare. ShopRite employs many Linden residents, who the Mayor wants to disenfranchise.
It is not certain that any residents will respond to the Mayor’s impassioned call for a boycott. The lawyer representing ShopRite is clearly not moved by the Mayor’s call to action. “That’s why we have courts,” replied ShopRite’s lawyer.
Readers are urged to email Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka at: [email protected], with following message:
“Dear Mayor Gerbounka, Your message about boycotting a city retailer and shop out of town was so inspiring, that I have decided to boycott other retailers in Linden. In fact, I think I’m going to do all my shopping outside of Linden, in any local merchant I can find. I think its unfair for ShopRite to have the same legal rights that I have seen Wal-Mart exercise repeatedly when suing local communities that have the nerve to turn them down.
It’s fine for the world’s largest retailer to sue towns — they’ve got the legal resources to shake things up — but smaller companies like ShopRite should remember that no one promised them a level playing field.
I can understand ShopRite trying to protect the survival of its business against a huge predator, and I can understand ShopRite trying to protect the jobs of its workers. But maybe you should offer any laid off ShopRite workers a job at City Hall writing new zoning ordinances to keep industrial land from being downzoned to commercial.
I am glad, Mr. Mayor, that there is at least one Mayor in New Jersey willing to stand by the Big Guy in such a fight. There are only 15 Wal-Marts within 20 miles of Linden, including store #3469 in Linden itself on Edgar Road. When Wal-Mart shuts down the Edgar Road store because of the Linden superstore, I’ll be prepared to boycott them too. Just give me the word, Mr. Mayor!”