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Activists Blast Wal-Mart Bid in Inglewood

Community leaders urge voters to reject a ballot measure that would allow a new store.

March 30, 2004|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

Inglewood clergymen, community leaders and city officials Monday denounced a ballot measure that would allow a new Wal-Mart in town, calling the retailer's effort to get the project approved by ballot box underhanded.

The outcry comes the week before Inglewood holds a special election on a measure that would permit Wal-Mart to build a shopping center the size of 17 football fields without conducting the usual environmental impact reports, traffic studies and public hearings required of other developers.

"They need to come in through the front door in the light of day, not sneak in the back at night," said Councilwoman Judy Dunlap.

Concerns about the Wal-Mart measure have united city, county and state officials, as well as religious leaders from a wide range of beliefs.

Among those demonstrating Monday across the street from the proposed store site were leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Nation of Islam and St. Michael's Catholic Church.

Supporters of the measure say a Wal-Mart would bring jobs and tax dollars to town. On Monday afternoon, Mayor Roosevelt F. Dorn became the lone council member to endorse the measure known as 04-A. He brushed aside concerns that Wal-Mart was anti-union.

"This is larger than the union," said Dorn, noting that he comes from a union family. "I see this as a development that can do great things in the city of Inglewood."

Wal-Mart maintains that Inglewood residents are capable of understanding the scope of the ballot measure. "Ultimately, this is the most direct form of democracy," said company spokesman Peter Kanelos. "This is something state law allows to happen. We're very optimistic that residents are excited about having the same shopping opportunities as surrounding cities."

In August, Wal-Mart began collecting the roughly 6,500 signatures it needed to qualify the measure for the ballot. The retail complex would be built on what is now an empty lot between the Hollywood Park racetrack and the Forum.

The measure, to be decided a week from today, needs a simple majority to pass. But repealing or amending it would require a two-thirds vote.

The initiative also would allow the Wal-Mart store to expand into a super center, which sells groceries as well as discount merchandise. The company's plans to build 40 super centers in California have local labor unions on the offensive.

The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents supermarket employees, and the L.A. County Federation of Labor have joined the effort to block Wal-Mart in Inglewood.

Protesters called the initiative a step backward in the fight for civil and workers' rights, criticizing the retailer for anti-union policies and its use of cheap labor overseas. In campaign mailings, opponents of the project point out that Wal-Mart has been sued repeatedly by women and minorities alleging discrimination. Inglewood is a city of 112,000 that is 46% black and 46% Latino.

Opponents also accused the company of misleading voters with its glossy mailers promising jobs, shops and fine restaurants.

Geremy Dickson, director of community affairs and urban ministries for the First Church of God, said he feared people were just not informed about what was at stake.

"I believe it's been sold as, 'Hey, Wal-Mart is coming to town. Lower prices,' " Dickson said.

The thought of bargain prices is appealing to some city residents who say they plan to vote for the measure. Standing to the side of the protesters Monday was a lone man with a sign declaring the deal "Good News for Inglewood." Opponents of measure 04-A rushed to the man and held up their own signs to hide him from TV news cameras.

If it passes, coalition officials said, the initiative would set a dangerous precedent for cities across the nation by preempting local and state control over the development process and circumventing environmental review of major projects. Taking future projects directly to voters could become a new strategy in Wal-Mart's campaign to expand into the grocery business in California.

Mayor Dorn said Wal-Mart used the initiative process because the company felt it could not get a fair hearing from the City Council. Nor is using the initiative process that unusual, Dorn said, noting that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken some of his causes directly to the voters.

In the last few weeks, people on both sides of the Wal-Mart debate have stepped up their efforts to win votes.

Wal-Mart has paid community members to carry its campaign door to door, while coalition members and church volunteers have spent evenings working the phones and walking the precincts to persuade people to vote no.

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