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City, Wal-Mart Step Up Hostilities

As planners consider restrictions on Supercenters, the company fires back.

June 24, 2004|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Following a federal judge's decision to authorize a class-action gender-discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart, the standoff between Los Angeles and the world's largest company is heating up again.

Today the city Planning Commission will consider a proposal that would regulate Wal-Mart's ability to open Supercenters -- mammoth stores that add aisles of groceries to the usual Wal-Mart goods -- within city limits.

Wal-Mart's attorneys responded to the city Tuesday with a letter that called the proposal unconstitutional, discriminatory and "inappropriate."

Los Angeles City Council members pushing the measure and their allies in organized labor were unmoved. They said the ordinance was necessary to protect the quality of life and good-paying jobs in the city.

"This isn't Arkansas. We won't be intimidated," said Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa.

"They are right that this is not Arkansas," Wal-Mart spokesman Peter Kanelos said. "Because in Arkansas, as well as in most of the rest of the country, consumer choice has not been limited by government."

Since Wal-Mart announced plans to build 40 Supercenters in California, some governments and their allies in organized labor have been fighting the company.

Many labor and community groups said they opposed the nonunion Wal-Marts because the stores depressed wages, destroyed businesses, worsened traffic and reduced employment in areas surrounding the sites.

In some California cities and counties, the retail giant has persuaded voters to repeal government prohibitions on the centers.

But the company suffered a defeat in Inglewood earlier this year when voters trounced a Wal-Mart-sponsored measure that would have allowed the company to erect a store in the city without the usual traffic studies or public hearings.

Los Angeles officials have been watching those battles closely.

More than a year ago Councilmen Eric Garcetti and Ed Reyes proposed prohibiting stores of more than 100,000 square feet that devoted more than 10% of their inventory to nontaxable food items in areas of the city designated as economic assistance zones.

"We would be negligent in not putting these kinds of policies forward," Reyes said, because of what Supercenters have "done to other communities around the country."

Last month, the councilmen modified that proposal to eliminate the outright ban on such stores and instead require companies wanting to build them to show that their projects would not hurt jobs, wages or businesses in the surrounding areas.

The measure has support on the council.

"We maintain that this is the responsible thing to do," Garcetti said.

"We encourage Wal-Mart, instead of fighting every community in Los Angeles ... to sit down with Los Angeles and see how we can make this work for everyone."

Wal-Mart officials do not appear to share that view. "We are going to continue to defend the shopping choices of the residents of Los Angeles," Kanelos said.

If the Planning Commission and then the council approved the Garcetti-Reyes proposal, Wal-Mart could sue the city or try to place an initiative on the ballot to persuade Los Angeles voters to repeal the law.

"We have not ruled out any options as far as challenging a potential ordinance" is concerned, Kanelos said.

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