Citizen Wal-Mart doesn’t like zoning ordinances that limit store size, or the content inside the store, so when the city council in Long Beach, California passed such an ordinance on September 19th., Wal-Mart did what any other angry “citizen” would do. They bankrolled the formation of a “citizen’s” group, and began collecting 33,000 signatures to overturn the action of the city’s elected officials. A group called “Long Beach Consumers for Choice” was financed by Wal-Mart stores of Arkansas. According to the Long Beach Press Telegram, the city clerk is now validating the signatures, and assuming 10% of the voters in Long Beach have signed, the measure would go to a referendum at a special election in April. The City Council on its own motion, with 5 votes, can repeal the ban. The ordinance now in effect was passed on a 7-2 vote. The ordinance bans stores over 100,000 s.f. that dedicate more than 10% of its interior space to the sale of non-taxable items, like groceries. The ordinance is similar to ones found in a number of other California communities, such as Martinez, and Turlock. In Turlock, Wal-Mart has lost two court battles challenging the cap ordinance. But in Contra Costa, California, Wal-Mart formed an “astro-roots” citizens group, spent a million dollars, and won a narrow election to overturn a law in Contra Costa similar to the Long Beach code. Emboldened by their electoral win in Contra Costa, and their legal defeat in Turlock, Wal-Mart is heading towards the ballot again in California. Voters in Long Beach need to fasten their seatbelts, because Wal-Mart is going to unleash a mighty force of campaign spending in the city to win this battle. Hiding behind the Long Beach Consumers for Choice, Wal-Mart will spend like a drunken sailor, because the prize is more than $100 million a year in sales from their supercenter. They tried to do the same thing in Eureka, California, and lost with only 38% of the vote. In Eureka they tried to write their own special zoning code, rather than attack an existing ordinance, but they spent big and lost big in Eureka.
In Long Beach, the issue is not “choice,” because Wal-Mart could build a 99,000 s,f. supercenter, which is still a huge store, and they even have an “Urban 99” prototype on the shelf. But this is more about sending a message to other California towns: don’t try to stand in Wal-Mart’s way. Wal-Mart has established its reputation as a corporate bully, and this Long Beach referendum is just the latest manifestation of that arrogance. Wal-Mart likes corporate democracy, in which the person with the most money wins. For similar stories, search by Turlock, Contra Costa and Eureka.