Once again, Wal-Mart rises to defend the rights of the beleaguered American consumer! This time it’s in Tucson, AZ, where Wal-Mart executives are displeased with the results of the demoractic process, so they are applying a little corporate democracy instead. Wal-Mart has formed a new ad hoc “citizens” group called “Consumers for Retail Choice Sponsored by Wal-Mart”. It sounds more like an advertisement than a political group, but the company is seriously trying to gather thousands of signatures to place a referendum before the voters of Tucson, challenging a new zoning ordinance passed by the City Council (see 9/28/99 newsflash). The new ordinance requires superstores larger than 100,000 s.f. to meet certain standards for noise, traffic, lighting, and hours of operation. It also requires developers to go before a public hearing instead of just an unelected zoning administrator, and requires a city council vote on superstore proposals. Most odious of all, the new law limits non-taxable sales in stores exceeding 100,000 s.f. to no more than 10% of the store’s floor area. Non-taxable items include groceries and prescriptions. Wal-Mart does not like the grocery restriction, but even has problems with the public hearing process. “It treats us as if we are a specially evil use,if you will” complains Wal-Mart’s local lawyer. Exactly the point! The new “consumers” group is corporately controlled by Wal-Mart, since its President is Wal-Mart’s district manager in Tucson, and the Treasurer is Wal-Mart’s lawyer. The “Consumers” have already hired a public relations firm to help the campaign, and their first act was to bankroll paid “petition circulators” to gather signatures in the community. Wal-Mart space and employees are also being used in their stores to gather signatures. Ironically, the Tucson City Clerk has informed Wal-Mart that they have been using the wrong form to gather names, and should be using city forms, not state petitions. The Clerk warned the company “you are taking a risk of having your petition challenged”. This formation of an “astro-roots” group (as contrasted with a real grassroots group) is becoming more common at corporate headquarters of Wal-Mart and Home Depot. This trend raises an issue of fairness to many neighborhood groups. “A corporation in Arkansas has all the money in the world to pour into our political process.It doesn’t seem fair.” explained Chris Tanz, who is the leader of The Union of Citizens to Save Our Neighborhoods (TUCSON), which is comprised of real homeowners and residents, and is not “sponsored” by any corporation. In fact, Wal-Mart has used its deep pockets to try to spend its way to victory at the ballot box.It hasn’t always worked. In Eureka, CA last August, Wal-Mart’s “consumer” group spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars on a rezoning ballot question, only to lose the vote by a 61-39% margin. But citizens in Payson and Yuma, AZ were outspent by Wal-Mart campaigns there, and in Toledo, OH Home Depot spent an incredible half a million dollars on one ballot vote last year. Neighbors complain that the superstores apparently see the electoral process as available to the highest bidder. Wal-Mart and Home Depot are also underwriting a similar challenge to a new zoning ordinance in Las Vegas, NV which resembles the Tucson ordinance.
In my hometown of Greenfield, MA, Wal-Mart set up one of its early “astro-roots” groups. They set up their local lawyer as the head of the group, and every penny spent on their losing effort to decide a rezoning issue on the ballot came from Bentonville, AR. So this is a pattern stretching back at least six years. One sidelight of the Tucson debate: if Wal-Mart is using its store premises to allow the gathering of ballot campaign signatures, can they prevent other community groups in the future from circulating petitions in the store? Wal-Mart is notorious for carefully watching over their premises, but what right would they have to allow only certain public policy issues to use their store for signatures, while rejecting others. By all rights, citizen’s groups opposed to sprawl should have the right to set up a table in Wal-Mart or Home Depot and gather signatures. First Amendment rights should not be selectively screened by corporations. And for the record, the average size of a Wal-Mart store in 1998 was under 100,000 s.f. The “choice” issue is not the concern here. Consumers have a wide range of shopping choices now, and Wal-Mart in Tucson can build a 99,000 s.f. grocery store if they want, which is the size of 2 football fields. The city law only governs stores that because of their scale are more likely to have significant adverse economic impacts on competition and public revenues.It’s Wal-Mart’s “choice” to try and impose very large faciities on a community. The communities could choose to go even further and simply limit the size of retail stores. Many communities have enacted such caps, which are entirely legal as a zoning ordinance.