Cibolo, TX. City Officials Caught Giving Wal-Mart Secret "Crooked" Deal
About six months ago, Sprawl-Busters reported on a citizen's battle against a Wal-Mart superstore in Cibolo, Texas. Today, everyone in this city of roughly 18,000 people is up in arms about a development that has led to high profile resignations--and a possible felony.
None of this controversy was necessary in the first place.
Cibolo, which calls itself the "City of Choice," has no need for its own Wal-Mart superstore. This small city is surrounded by Wal-Marts. There are a total of 11 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of Cibolo--of which 10 are superstores. There is already a Wal-Mart superstore less than 5 miles away in Schertz, Texas, and 7 miles away in Converse, Texas.
There are also no less than 13 Wal-Mart supercenters in San Antonio as close as 9 miles away. So Cibolo is saturated with big box stores, and this project cannot be justified by existing market need. Another Wal-Mart will get all of its sales captured from existing merchants, and thus represents no new jobs or tax revenues.
In early July, 2013, the Cibolo City Council voted 6-1 to approve Wal-Mart's preliminary plans. Opponents of the Cibolo Wal-Mart contacted Sprawl-Busters at the end of June. One resident of Cibolo sent this plea for help on July 3rd:
"There is a group of citizens opposing Wal-Mart in our small community. The City Council completely blind-sided the community and flat out lied to us. While we don't mind a Wal-Mart coming into our city limits, the location they chose is the issue. They are trying to build a 183,000 ft superstore across the street from an elementary school and church. The street has 2 lanes and Wal-Mart intends to widen it to 5."
A group called "Citizens for Cibolo" quickly formed, and filed petitions seeking passage of separate city ordinances that would bar the sale of alcohol and firearms within 300 feet of a church or school. But according to the City's Mayor, even if the ordinance passed, Wal-Mart will be grandfathered because its plat has already received initial approval.
In July, the Cibolo City Council tabled a proposal to ban alcohol sales within 300 feet of a school, church or hospital. One City Councilor who proposed the ban said "this issue will come up again and again...let's just get it addressed once and for all." But the Council tabled the motion for a later date.
The loss of liquor sales, even if it were applicable to the proposed Wal-Mart project, is not likely to stop the store from opening. Things like alcohol sales, and 24/7 operations do have an impact on Wal-Mart's profitability, but are unlikely to kill the project. No overnight hours would have a greater impact financially---but would not likely deter Wal-Mart..
But very quickly this case started spinning out of control. This week, Channel 4 San Antonio reported that a controversial email "surfaced" between the City's Director of Community Development and Wal-Mart. The email suggests that city staff fudged development fees to lower the cost that Wal-Mart would have to pay the city for site development work---in effect giving the retailer a $1 million subsidy--at taxpayer expense.
"Effectively, this lowers the impact fees by over $1 million and it's the best I can do," the Director of Community Development told Wal-Mart in an email. The staffer used the wrong zone's impact traffic fee, and admitted there was another zone fee "which is really the one I should use, but I am not going to."
Cibolo City Councilors told News 4 that they had no idea a city staffer was cutting special deals to help Wal-Mart at taxpayer's expense. "It was crooked especially without his upper management permission and along with city council, we were totally blind-sided by it.. and it should have never been sent," one Councilor told News 4.
This past week, the Director of Community Development resigned, and News 4 claims "the email could spark a criminal investigation." According to Tannya Steffen, who has been spearheading opposition to the Wal-Mart, "The email brought up in an open records request blatantly shows the wrong numbers were used for the equation to determine the impact fee."
Citizens for Cibolo have created a website to keep residents informed of what's been going on behind the scenes. "As most residents of Cibolo now know, whether they are keeping up with information via Facebook or by word of mouth, there is a lawsuit pending against the City of Cibolo. The lawsuit was brought forth when the announcement came that a big box retailer was going locate across from an elementary school. When questioned, the city staff was stating that this was all ok, done legally and above board, however some residents of Cibolo have researched and gathered evidence that contradicts statements and claims made by City Staff. After recognizing the errors and finding proof that the zoning process was not followed correctly the Residents of Cibolo made many attempts to address these errors and contradictions through the City. While a few elected officials supported the efforts to bring forth the facts, many from the city and community did not and these citizens were left being treated with disrespect and disregard of their rights."
"Our Residents of Cibolo have found state and local government laws, ordinances and codes that contradict what the city has done. They believe the City has gone too far and have not been honest with our citizens about the facts in what is deemed a "regional big box" in an inappropriate location... Those few who spoke and asked hard questions were seen as roadblocks that must be taken down... These residents of Cibolo recognized that mistakes can be made, but unfortunately instead of admitting and correcting them, City Staff and a few council members tried diligently to cover-up, hide and destroy the truth of records. They have ignored request for open records and had to be forced by the Attorney General's office to comply with the basic guarantee of a citizens rights to open government (open records). Today, though many have been acquired, there is a lot still missing and we believe destroyed."
"These residents of Cibolo simply want the truth to be known, they want the government they were guaranteed through their Federal rights, Texas Local Government Codes (laws), and the codes (laws) adopted through our own elected officials to be adhered to."
Tannya Steffen told Sprawl-Busters: "The citizens of Cibolo have been begging their government for transparency since the beginning. We have asked the city to review the process, as many citizens have found flaws and gaps in the procedures involving Wal-Mart coming to the proposed location. Emails were presented during council meetings that were obtained via open records request, in which city staff states that other Cibolo properties were rezoned illegally. There are also emails in which staff are instructing others within the city to not release open records to certain citizens, and staff are telling each other to delete emails. The main email in question was presented again last night at city hall before the council in which the impact fees are addressed. The former community developer states that he knowingly used numbers that don't correspond to the Wal-Mart property in order to determine their impact fees, and in effect, giving them a $1 million dollar tax break. The citizens are furious and are demanding the city to investigate this behavior. The city will be getting an independent third party with subpoena capability to investigate this thoroughly. The city is continuing forward with the lawsuit in regards to the Home Owner's Association suing them over inappropriate/illegal rezoning of the Wal-Mart property, even though they have been asked to concede. They have refused."
What you can do: Citizens for Cibolo says their litigation "is to prove that the property in 2010 was improperly and illegally re-zoned and without proper notification to the citizens. In review of the documents, it is believed that zoning laws might not have been properly followed, and these potential changes to the zoning laws in the process could have a negative impact on property values and quality of life for many of our residents (contrary to why they bought here)... As the evidence began to accumulate it became clearer that this may not be the first time that the city possibly engaged in illegal behavior, however we hope the lawsuit will make it the last."
Readers who wish to help the Citizens for Cibolo with their legal bills can go to this website: http://www.cibolovoter.com/
Readers can also email a comment to the Cibolo City Council at: www.cibolotx.gov/CommunityVoice with the following message:
"It is now clear, because of citizen opposition, that City staff were conducting themselves in an inappropriate, and likely illegal, manner, and that special financial deals were being made to benefit Wal-Mart, at the expense of city taxpayers. The City Council should put this project on hold, and authorize an independent investigation of Wal-Mart's communications with city officials.
Better yet, the City Council should urge Wal-Mart to withdraw its superstore plans, and rely on its existing fleet of nearby stores to satisfy consumer needs for cheap Chinese imports.
None of this would have come to light if the Citizens had not filed an open records request. This has made the Mayor and Council look very bad in the eyes of the public."