Apparently Wal-Mart was not too pleased with the Flagstaff, Arizona City Council when it passed a zoning code in 2004 that limits the scale of big box development. So Wal-Mart decided to act like a “citizen” and put the issue on the Flagstaff ballot next May. The Flagstaff law caps new or expanding retail stores at 125,000 square feet, requires a conditional use permit on anything larger than 75,000 square feet and imposes an 8 percent limit on the amount of floor space a large retailer may devote to non-taxable grocery sales. After the City Council passed the new ordinance on a 5-2 vote, a Wal-Mart front group called “Protect Flagstaff’s Future” was formed to collect signatures for a referendum drive to see if voters would overturn the law. That special election is scheduled for May 2005 and will use an all-mail ballot. By filing for the referendum, the new law has been suspended until the May vote. A local Realtor who formed the new referendum group, told the media the group will spend about $100,000 on the campaign — with much of that money coming from large retailers, such as Wal-Mart. Supporters of the new law say it protects union jobs at local grocery stores and will help keep Flagstaff development in human scale.
Once again “citizen” Wal-Mart will try to use its corporate wealth to overturn a municipal law it doesn’t like. There are no financial limits on such municipal ballot questions, so Wal-Mart can use this front group to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence the voters. This is one of the most blatantly bogus campaign finance situations in the nation. Large corporations can try to show that hometown American is for sale to the highest bidder. In this case, it’s Flagstaff. But tomorrow it could be your community. Wal-Mart has won some of these contests, and lost some of them. But in just about every case, they have outspent real citizens’ groups by six to one. To see earlier stories about referendums, search Newsflash by “referendum” or “ballot.” If corporations were stripped of their right to be treated as a “citizen” , this kind of corporate bidding-game would be over. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled essentially that corporations have the same rights as “citizens” when it comes to First Amendment rights. Several communities in Pennsylvania have challenged the right of corporations to be treated as “citizens” by passing local ordinances not recognizing corporations as “citizens.” Legal challenges of these ordinances have not taken place.