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Steve Emmons

The Great Muffler Debate: Pros Muck It Up, Amateurs Pierce the Murk

April 18, 1985|STEVE EMMONS

We can now thank the Santa Ana City Council for finally lifting its siege of Miguel Pulido's muffler shop.

We can also thank the council for a textbook case of how seemingly intelligent people can go dreadfully wrong. In fact, Pulido's case is such a clear example that we can use it as a test.

Want to take the test? OK, pretend it's last summer and you are on the Santa Ana City Council.

Here's the problem:

Miguel Pulido immigrated to the United States as a laborer from Mexico City in 1960, eventually summoned his family and became a naturalized citizen.

He has owned the Ace Muffler Shop downtown on East 1st Street for 14 years. He worked there for 10 years before owning it. He built it up to the point that it brought in about 6,000 customers and a $400,000 gross last year.

To widen 1st Street, the city bought a 30-foot strip in front of Pulido's shop. Because of the wider street, Pulido was forced to tear down his old building and build a new one at a cost of $200,000. He and his sons are just putting the finishing touches on the new building.

Here's the decision:

The city is cleaning up the run-down sections of downtown. A developer has agreed to build a shopping center covering about four downtown blocks. Pulido's muffler shop is just inside the edge of that area. Most of the buildings are run-down, but Pulido's muffler shop is not.

The city is offering to buy up all the land and sell it to the developer at a huge discount. The developer says he will not build the shopping center unless he gets Pulido's land, too.

Pulido says he doesn't want to move because he has worked at the shop for 24 years and it means more to him than just money. He says he will redecorate his shop to blend in with any shopping center the developer builds.

Should we force Pulido to sell his muffler shop?

I suspect that almost all ordinary people would say, no, let him be. This is not some kennel in the way of a new high school. Ace Muffler is a consumer business on the outskirts of a proposed center for consumer businesses.

This is not a case of trying to squeeze more money out of the city. Pulido turned down an offer for just under $1 million, which would have bought him a gold-plated muffler shop. This is literally a choice between an individual's hard-built livelihood, which is established and flourishing, and a corporate fast-food franchise, which is what the developer wants on Pulido's land.

Urbatec, the developer, says its shopping center can't succeed if an auto service facility is included. This developer, which has never built a shopping center, should visit South Coast Plaza sometime, where Sears operates a huge auto service center.

So should the council members. Last July, when the developer threatened to pull out, four of seven council members panicked and literally gave away the store--Pulido's store. What is disturbing is that these supposedly sophisticated people could be so taken in.

This week I called seven randomly chosen registered voters in Santa Ana, one from each council ward, and posed the same problem printed above. My mock council turned out to be five men and two women with ages ranging from 22 to 77. They were a laborer, plumber, contractor, office worker, retired office worker, student and construction worker.

They voted 6 to 1 for the muffler shop, and even the dissenting vote was reluctant. In their unsophisticated way, they voted more wisely than did the real council. It makes you wonder what political sophistication is worth.

It apparently obscures matters when questions of right and wrong are involved. It clouds your understanding when motives can't be reduced to terms of mere money. It apparently makes you do things that you will be ashamed of--or ought to be--if ordinary people find out about them.

Take Mayor Daniel E. Griset, for example. Griset wanted that shopping center downtown, so he voted to sacrifice Pulido's shop. We don't know what Griset really was thinking, but we do know that once public outrage built and the necessary council votes fell away, Griset wanted to make sure he was counted on Pulido's side.

He went to Pulido's muffler shop and told him flatly that there would be no condemnation. He assured Pulido that he could "rest easy."

A month later, the council, acting without notifying Pulido, voted to begin condemnation of his shop. Griset's was one of the votes for condemnation.

Tuesday, Griset, along with the rest of the council, voted not to condemn Pulido's shop. What had changed?

Well, the developer threatened to sue, but that was no surprise. The big change was that public outrage at the council's arrogance had grown and Griset was seeing his political career flash before his eyes.

Did the questions of right or wrong then suddenly become clear to him and the others? It could happen, I guess.

My mock city council would not have had that problem. These amateurs would have voted properly the first time--because it seemed right, not profitable. Pulido would have gotten his fair shake right away.

Perhaps Mayor Griset and the others would like to consult my city council when other such decisions come up. I will keep their phone numbers here, just in case.

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