Ceres, CA. Legal Battle Over Wal-Mart Now In 5th Year
For the past 5 years, residents of Ceres, California have been engaged in a marathon battle against Wal-Mart. That prolonged fight is certainly not what the giant retailer expected, and the delay has cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales.
The two sides are still in Court, and the battle has focused not on big box stores -- but on hundreds of documents vital to the case that the city and Wal-Mart refuse to release. The battle has had its shares of twists and turns, but here is the latest update from the Citizen's for Ceres:
"On September 17, 2012, the Fifth District Court of Appeal issued a stay order: "The proceedings in Stanislaus County Superior Court case No. 670117, Citizens for Ceres v. City of Ceres, et al. is stayed pending further order of this court."
Citizens for Ceres' "petition" with the Court of Appeal in Fresno asks the appellate court to force the city of Ceres to turn over internal communications and external communications between its staff and Walmart representatives and to include these in the "administrative record" presented to the court. "We challenge the applicability of the 'attorney work product' and 'attorney-client' communication privileges on documents
(mostly email exchanges) in which no attorney was involved.
According to a 400-page 'privilege log' filed by the city, many of these exchanges were simply between city staff and city consultants, or city staff and Walmart representatives," explains Citizens for Ceres spokeswoman, Sherri Jacobson. "Our group continually requests transparency from our city and Walmart, and we will not stand for more lip service and red tape. We believe both law and fairness require the city and Walmart to let us receive the disputed 700 documents for review to ensure the land use process is transparent," says Jacobson. "We await seeing if the appellate court asks Walmart and the city to file opposition," Jacobson concludes.
After the Ceres City Council approved the Mitchell Ranch Center project (with a Walmart supercenter as its only specified tenant) in fall 2011, Citizens for Ceres filed a lawsuit in Stanislaus County Superior Court challenging the certification of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and project approval.
From the onset of our trial court lawsuit and as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Citizens for Ceres asked the city of Ceres to prepare the "administrative record" of all of the proceedings, documents and communications in the city's possession regarding the project. The court will review this record to determine whether the city abused its discretion in approving the project.
The city produced a woefully under-inclusive record early this year, ultimately admitting to unilaterally excluding thousands of documents on the basis that they were either "not relevant" or protected from disclosure by "attorney-client," "attorney-work product," or "deliberative process" privileges. In February 2012, the city and Walmart filed a motion asking the Superior Court to move the matter to trial despite the incomplete record.
Citizens for Ceres filed motions to compel the city to include these documents in the record before the court could hear the merits of the case. The court denied the city's and Walmart's motion and instructed all parties to work together to attempt to resolve issues regarding the record contents. The city, working with Walmart, ultimately produced several thousands of pages of documents but still asserted privileges over approximately 3,000 documents.
On July 9, 2012, the Superior Court heard oral arguments on the record dispute. The Superior Court ordered the city and Walmart to produce some documents over which they asserted privilege, concluding that approximately 700 documents challenged by Citizens for Ceres were privileged and therefore, the court could not force the city or Walmart to produce these documents or include them in the record.
On September 7, 2012, Citizens for Ceres filed a legal action in the Court of Appeal in Fresno, California, asking the court for an immediate "Stay" of the trial court proceedings taking place in Stanislaus County Superior Court and compelling the City to include the disputed documents in the administrative record. "We are very pleased about the stay order," said Citizens for Ceres' attorney Brett Jolley, "I believe this shows the appellate court wants to take some time to seriously consider the administrative record issue."
What you can do: July 2012 marked the five year point in the Citizens for Ceres battle against the world's largest retailer. Readers are urged to help the Citizens fight their legal battle over the future of their community. Financial contributions should be made out to "Citizens for Ceres," and sent to: Citizens for Ceres, P.O. Box 2811, Ceres, CA 95307