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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

County Backs Study of Plan to Cut Big-Box Grocery Sales

May 17, 2000|GINA PICCALO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a largely symbolic vote applauded by union leaders and grocery workers, county supervisors on Tuesday directed staff to study a proposal by Supervisor John K. Flynn to limit the sale of groceries at popular big-box discount stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco.

The board voted 4 to 1 to direct Chief Administrator Harry Hufford and County Counsel Jim McBride to review the issue and report back with recommendations. The board's action is largely symbolic because there are no big-box stores in the county's jurisdiction and no parcel of land large enough to house one.

But Flynn and other supervisors said the measure was an important gesture that would show support for small businesses and local grocery workers across the county as large discount stores push to dominate the market.

"The impact of big-box stores both on the work force and on the mom-and-pop stores resonates throughout the county," Supervisor Kathy Long said after Tuesday's meeting. County consideration of the restrictions "is sending the message to the region and setting the bar."

On Tuesday, members of the United Food & Commercial Workers International Local 1036 crowded the board meeting room to hear their representative, Chris Ivey, urge the board to stop big-box stores from weakening the local "food chain." He said they stock imported goods manufactured by exploited foreign labor.

Dozens of men, some wearing Vons name tags, cheered Flynn for his support.

"It's an issue of morality, here," Flynn said. "A free economy is good as long as it's not on the backs of the working people."

Supervisor Frank Schillo, the dissenting vote, said a county law limiting warehouse-style stores would have little or no effect on the municipal governments of Ventura County, which make their own decisions on such issues. The ordinance would also unfairly restrict competition and increase costs, he said.

"There are an awful lot of people in my district who are more concerned about the cost of living than they are about the cost of earning," said Schillo, whose district covers Thousand Oaks, Oak Park, Westlake and portions of Oxnard.

The four other supervisors, however, said they want more information on the measure before making a decision. Three of them--Flynn, Long and Lacey--have often supported pro-labor issues. Supervisor Judy Mikels, a fiscal conservative who often votes with like-minded colleague Schillo on business issues, said she is straddling the fence on whether the county should limit the discount stores.

"It's looking a little uneven to me," she said. "If you can't have grocery items in big-box stores, then you have to limit non-grocery items in supermarkets. [But] I certainly love the free market."

The board vote followed a presentation by Ivey, who represents 12,000 workers in six California counties.

Using colorful maps and banners, Ivey told the board that big-box stores are rapidly dominating the U.S. market and using exploited foreign workers to do it. After Ivey, representatives from Wal-Mart and Costco told the board the ordinance would unfairly favor supermarkets and increase costs to consumers.

"It would set a dangerous precedent," said Mark Maushund, the vice president of Costco's Los Angeles region stores.

Not all employees at Costco are represented by a union, but Maushund said all employees are paid "a living wage and good benefits." Wal-Mart's workers are not represented by a labor union.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Cynthia Lin said that since Sunday, thousands of shoppers had signed an informal petition opposing the ordinance. The measure is "sending a horrible message to Ventura County consumers," Lin said. McBride said he will determine whether such an ordinance would be legal. Hufford recommended after the meeting that big-box stores have an opportunity to make presentations to the board before a staff report is issued.

The union asked supervisors to amend Ventura County's General Plan to restrict new stores of more than 90,000 square feet from devoting more than 3% of their sales area to nontaxable merchandise, such as meats and produce. Larger stores would have to restrict groceries to 1%-2% of sales space.

Since 1997, similar ordinances have been passed in the cities of Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County and Arroyo Grande in San Luis Obispo County. City officials in both communities said their decision was influenced by Ivey's presentation on behalf of grocery store workers.

In Santa Maria, a city of 73,000, council members passed the measure to guarantee that a planned Wal-Mart wouldn't begin expanding its store to offer food items, city planner Jim Stern said.

"It was proposed to be a traditional Wal-Mart, but the city wanted to be assured that it would stay that way," Stern said.

In Arroyo Grande, a produce-growing town of 15,400, the City Council passed an ordinance to limit the store size and number of food items sold at Wal-Mart.

Mayor Michael Lady said the town modeled its ordinance after Santa Maria's measure.

"We like to be a small and rural community, and big-box isn't as welcome here as it is in larger bedroom communities," Lady said.

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