Wal-Mart’s tough, John-Wayne-shoot-out in Tucson is over — for now. Sprawl-Busters reported on July 6th that Wal-Mart was threatening to take the city of Tucson to court — because the city refused to validate thousands of referendum signatures to challenge the Tucson big box store law. When Wal-Mart turned in its signatures, the city clerk rejected them on legal grounds. The city asserted that state law prohibits ballot initiatives from targeting zoning ordinances because it circumvents the zoning process, including public hearings required by state law. After legal toughtalk last week, Wal-Mart yesterday ended the gunfight. The retailer objects to the city’s law that limits stores larger than 100,000 s.f. to no more than 10% of square footage to non-taxable items, like groceries. Wal-Mart had hired a consultant to pay signature gatherers, collected names, and was ready to take their case to the voters next November. But yesterday, their legal guns were back in the holster. Wal-Mart slipped a letter to Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup and the City Council saying that Wal-Mart was dropping its effort to push its mis-named “Consumer Choice Initiative” on the ballot. “Engaging in a lawsuit with the city of Tucson wasn’t the right alternative in this case,” Wal-Mart admitted. Clearly the company had not anticipated that the city would reject its signatures. The company also appears to have done little work to research Arizona state law. Trying to put the best shine on their effort, Wal-Mart’s representative told the media that the 22,000 people who signed the short-lived petition were now free to ask the city to “take action on their behalf… The mayor and council has the ability to change the ordinance themselves.” Despite backing down, Wal-Mart continued to assert it would have won in court. It’s not clear, therefore, why Wal-Mart folded its tent. All the company would say was that they just decided against it because a lawsuit wasn’t “the right move. Publicity wasn’t a factor,” the retailer said. Wal-Mart told Arizona Daily Star that the signature gathering and media releases were not a publicity stunt to exert pressure on the city council. “We were really serious about it,” Wal-Mart said.
Mayor Walkup’s comment in response to Wal-Mart’s retreat was, “I think that’s appropriate. I’m pleased to hear it.” The fact is, Wal-Mart doesn’t want to push the city council too far — because this is the same council that several months ago waived the big box ordinance to allow a Wal-Mart to be developed on South Kino Parkway. “The big boxes are being well-served by council,” the Mayor confessed. But the Mayor is not willing to give big box retailers a blank check anywhere in the city. “There are some places where a big box of any kind does not fit the community. Every application will receive a fair hearing.” The whole ballot move has been seen as an attempt by Wal-Mart to “take off its shirt” to the Council, and make it clear that if they don’t get their way, they can flex their muscles. But the fact remains, the company misread state law, spent a lot of money gearing up to fight a legal battle and a ballot battle, only to fizzle out in a major public relations collapse. Do such antics bother shareholders? Probably not, as long as monthly sales increases dominate the headlines. But there has never been a more aggressive, bullying retail company in the history of America. Instead of selling underwear and bananas, Wal-Mart gets into bloodly legal fights. For earlier stories, search Newsflash by “Tucson.”