Kerman, CA. Wal-Mart Costs City $45,000 For Special Election For Superstore
Citizen Wal-Mart is at in again in California. The corporation has written its own 60 page zoning document that basically allows it to build a huge superstore in the small city (pop 14,000) of Kerman, California -- completely bypassing the community's elected City Council.
In effect, Wal-Mart is buying its way into Kerman, using lessons learned from community organizers to get what it wants. All the company has to do is buy enough newspaper ads, send enough color mailers, and make enough robo calls -- -- and more than $100 million a year in profits is secured. This exercise in corporate democracy will cost the taxpayers of Kerman at least $45,000. That's the estimate of what Wal-Mart's special election will cost.
This is exactly the scenario that Wal-Mart used in March of 2011 in Milpitas,California. When the City Council voted down a Wal-Mart expansion on June 1, 2010, Wal-Mart decided to go directly to the voters and over the head of the elected officials. Wal-Mart used professional signature gatherers to collect 4,000 signatures from registered Milpitas voters shopping at its existing stores, to push for a special election in the fall. The ballot question will ask voters whether they want to allow Wal-Mart to expand to allow liquor sales, groceries and 24-hour operation. City officials in Milpitas calculated that it would cost the taxpayers roughly $215,700 to hold Wal-Mart's election -- and the company has not offered one penny towards the expense.
In Keman, the Mayor Gary Yep is part owner of a grocery store., and according to the Fresno Bee is an "outspoken critic" of Wal-Mart. The Bee said Wal-Mart's end-run of the City Council has "left some accusing the retail giant, which bankrolled the initiative, of muscling its way around local leadership and oversight -- and created hard feelings in town."
Wal-Mart approached a local resident in Kerman to file the petition to start off the signature-gathering process. The woman Wal-Mart chose admitted that a Wal-Mart consultant had approached her about being the figurehead for the effort. "It's more of a democratic process to give the decision to voters," Wal-Mart's shill explained -- implying that from now on there is no need for zoning decisions to be made by the planning board and city council. By going on the ballot, Wal-Mart can also avoid any of the "conditions" that are placed on projects by Planning Commissions and City Councils. Such "conditions" help mitigate impacts on the community, such as limits on hours of operation, location of loading docks, traffic improvements, etc. Wal-Mart would avoid all of these controls by voting in their self-serving plan.
The City Manager and his staff told the Fresno Bee that a huge Wal-Mart makes financial sense in this small town, and will add about half a million in sales tax to the city's treasury. This of course is a gross figure, and not net, and fails to account for the lost revenues that will come as the downtown of Kerman shuts down and is converted into a boutique street. City Manager Ron Manfredi told the newspaper "from a practical point of view, we're getting everything we asked for. It's a beautiful project that's greatly needed." Manfredi said the Wal-Mart would add 300 jobs to the trade area -- but he has no evidence that this is the case -- and such conclusions fly in the face of many studies (including some prominent research from California) that Wal-Mart kills more jobs than it creates.
Wal-Mart's 60 page ballot measure -- which few voters will bother to read -- changes the city's general plan to allow a store on 20 acres just outside downtown. This is the ultimate in 'designer zoning,' where a developer gets to change city land use laws to precisely fit their own plan. This is exactly what zoning was created to preclude: a landowner getting special interest treatment.
The Planning Commission in Kerman overwhelmingly supported Wal-Mart's plan -- just as the Planning Commission in Milpitas fawned all over the giant retailer. But the City Council's role was clouded by the fact that several competing businessmen sit on the Council -- including Mayor Yep.
Last February, the Council decided to allow one member of the Council who had no conflict to be joined by two other city residents chosen by random, to make the decision. But Wal-Mart short-circuited this process by starting an initiative petition that would take the matter to voters, as if they were voting on a new fire station. A Wal-Mart spokesman told the Bee, "We believe this is the best way to allow residents to show their support for the project."
This coming week, the new three person quorum has to decide whether to set a date for the special election, vote to simply approve the project as it came from the Planning Commission, or delay making a decision for another month.
What you can do: According to the Fresno Bee, the only 'real' city council member who has no business conflict, is quoted as describing the Wal-Mart project as "a good thing." Council member Richard Stockwell told the newspaper, "Our city is growing large enough that we need more options to shop at, and I know retail is one of the things lacking in our tax base."
If the Wal-Mart project is approved, Councilor Stockwell will spend the next few years trying to figure out how to fill the empty retail holes in his struggling downtown.
Readers are urged to email Councilor Stockwell at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message:
"Dear Councilor Stockwell, It is ironic that Kerman's motto is 'community comes first.' It appears from recent events in Kerman that developers come first. It is remarkable that a private corporation based in Arkansas can come to town, and rewrite your existing zoning code with 60 pages of documents that will make them more than a hundred million in profits every year. And your existing small b usinesses will lose sales, lose jobs, and close their doors.
Your term on the Council expires in 2012 -- so you could be off the Council before the real damage starts to occur. But remember this: You can't buy small town quality of life on any shelf at Wal-Mart -- but once they take it from you -- they can't sell it back at any price.
You should vote to have this special interest election for Wal-Mart, and ask them to pay for it. Then the entire city council should come out against the initiative -- if for no other reason that to protect the integrity of your current zoning practice.
If Wal-Mart sets this precedent in Kerman, every other developer who doesn't get what they want will go to the voters, and Kerman's will be for sale to the highest bidder."