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2000-02-05
Tucson, AZ. Court "Surprises" Wal-Mart

Instead of minding the store in Tucson, Arizona, Wal-Mart has spent more time dabbling in electoral politics and courtrooms. As a result, the Merchants of Mediocrity saw their legal efforts rise and fall in one week in Tucson. If you use the Newflash Index to review the 11/12/99 entry from Tucson, you will recall that Wal-Mart had challenged a city zoning ordinance that created certain standards regarding noise, lighting, traffic, merchandise mix, etc. of any stores over 100,000 s.f. Wal-Mart did not like the ordinance, so they set up a committee called the "Consumers for Retail Choice Sponsored by Wal-Mart" and hired signature gatherers to get enough voters to force the city ordinance to a referendum vote next spring. Wal-Mart's political machine collected 14,770 signatures, and they thought they were in fat city, because Tucson city rules required only 7,703 signatures to get on the ballot. But the city then challenged the Wal-Mart petitions, stating that the company had not followed city guidelines in preparing its petition. Ironically, Wal-Mart went to court arguing that it did not have to follow city rules, but state rules, and that under state law the petition sheets were properly circulated and composed. On January 31st, a Superior Court Judge ruled in favor of Wal-Mart, saying that state law prevails over city law, and that Wal-Mart's petitions were valid. But two days later, the same Judge ruled that pursuant to state law Wal-Mart did not have enough signatures. It turns out that by using state law, the signature requirement is higher. Under Title 19 of state law, Wal-Mart had to gather 10% of "the whole number of votes cast", not just ballots cast. In the election used as the basis for the calculation, voters could vote for up to 3 city councilors, so the whole number of votes cast was much higher than the ballots. According to the Superior Court ruling, Wal-Mart would need roughly 15,000 signatures, instead of the 7,703 signatures they would have needed under the city method of ballots-only threshold. Wal-Mart's lawyer immediately told the Tucson Citizen that the Judge's ruling was "an absurd result". "It flies in the face of common sense," Wal-Mart complained. The City's attorney said however that state lawmakers meant exactly what they put into state law. "The Legislature knows the difference between a vote and a ballot, and they meant vote," the city said. A Wal-Mart spokesman told The Arizona Daily Star that her company was "certainly surprised". "We obviously have to consider our options, but I'd say an appeal is pretty likely. Our intent is simply to put this before the voters."

What you can do: Here's the fallout from this court ruling: If the Wal-Mart petitions don't have enough signatures, it is now too late to go back and do another petition drive. That means Tucson's new big box ordinance would remain in effect, causing problems for both Wal-Mart, and Home Depot. The latter is trying to hammer its way into the El Con downtown mall, against strong neigbhorhood opposition. If the Wal-Mart petition was successful, the ordinance would have been put on hold until the vote next May, and Home Depot could have had a clear pathway into the controversial mall. So Wal-Mart and Home Depot have nothing to lose by appealing the Judge's latest ruling, but there is no timetable for how long it would take to make a ruling. In the meantime, the new ordinance still stands. In one week, Wal-Mart's fortune rose and sank in Tucson. The company has not revealed how much it has cost to challenge the ordinance to date, but they spent nearly $30,000 alone to gather signatures, and their legal bills are as big as their stores. Instead of plying their retail trade, the company once again finds itself eyeball-deep in legal controversies. If Wal-Mart is such a popular store with consumers, why do they continually find themselves in daily headlines and courtrooms? Sam Walton warned the company not to "create a fuss" when towns don't want you, but the folks in Bentonville today would rather fight than switch.










 
 
"Norman has become the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement" ~ 60 Minutes

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