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A Big-Box Ballot Bully

March 28, 2004

A small but growing number of cities and counties nationwide are trying to ban Wal-Mart "supercenters," the jumbo grocery and discount stores. Unions and many politicians curse supercenters because they pay employees less than competitors do, even as consumers covet the stores' low prices. We oppose an effort by Los Angeles lawmakers to ban supercenters. But we also oppose Wal-Mart's attempt to bully the city of Inglewood into welcoming a store. If the retail giant succeeds at getting its project approved by ballot box in Inglewood, it would set an alarming precedent in California.

A group funded by Wal-Mart collected thousands of signatures in a successful effort to place an initiative on the April 6 Inglewood ballot. The measure, if approved by voters, would ram through a plan for a Wal-Mart-anchored shopping center the size of 17 football fields -- without the usual traffic studies, environmental reviews and public hearings required of any other development.

Wal-Mart claims it was forced to put the issue directly to voters because of Inglewood's elected officials, who last year banned Wal-Mart supercenters, only to rescind the ban after the retail giant gathered enough signatures to put it to a vote. But the ballot measure that Wal-Mart is backing in the upcoming special election goes way beyond an up-or-down vote on supercenters. Under the guise of "direct democracy," Wal-Mart would shut out government and public oversight. If this measure passes and survives an inevitable court challenge, you can bet the retailing giant will try it in other cities that dare to resist superstores.

Wal-Mart argues that putting its plan to a vote allows more Inglewood residents to weigh in than would typically participate in the city planning process. That's misleading, even assuming most voters have the patience to slog through the 71-page initiative and the expertise to understand the site drawings and planning lingo it contains. Love Wal-Mart or loathe it, the ballot box is simply not the place to decide how many parking spaces this mega-center should have, how many new traffic signals would be needed to prevent gridlock or whether local sewer lines can handle an extra 50,000 gallons of waste a day. The ballot box is not the place to weigh a development's effect on the city's water supply or choose the kind of trees to be planted.

The initiative would do all this. And as long as what the developer built conformed to the criteria that Wal-Mart itself put on the ballot, then everyone from city officials to the shopping center's neighbors could ask no questions, require no revisions and negotiate no alterations. In fact, the measure includes a provision that any change would require another election -- and two-thirds approval from voters rather than the simple majority needed to pass the plan in the first place.

Wal-Mart officials say they were convinced that Inglewood leaders wouldn't give a supercenter a fair hearing. But substituting big business for big government does consumers no favor. If voters are unhappy with Inglewood leaders, they can throw them out of office. If Inglewood becomes saddled with this measure as law, it will be next to impossible to make changes later.

When some L.A. City Council members began pushing last month for a ban on supercenters in Los Angeles, we argued for a case-by-case approach. The needs of communities -- and consumers -- vary. The planning process takes this into account. Inglewood voters should vote no on Wal-Mart's "Home Stretch at Hollywood Park," Measure 04-A -- and send a message that planning how a community develops cannot be ceded to Wal-Mart or any corporation.

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