The battle over banning grocery sales at big box stores in Long Beach will now be fought at the polls and could cost the state's fifth-largest city hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Long Beach City Council voted in September to ban grocery sales at stores larger than 100,000 square feet, including Wal-Mart, even though the discount retailer had no plans for a so-called Supercenter in the city.
In November a group calling itself Long Beach Consumers for Choice, largely funded by the Greater Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and Wal-Mart, presented a referendum petition signed by 33,391 registered voters that favored repealing the ban.
The petition was later certified, leaving the council three options: to kill the ban, place the issue on the June 2008 ballot or hold a special election on the issue.
Last week, the council chose the second option. Councilman Gary DeLong cast the lone dissenting vote, citing the costs involved in placing the issue on the ballot. The Chamber of Commerce and Wal-Mart also criticized the cost as wasteful.
City Clerk Larry Herrera told the council that placing the issue on the June ballot would probably cost the city about $400,000.
Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal, who fought the development of a downtown Wal-Mart several years ago, scoffed at blaming the cost on the council. She noted that the chamber has repeatedly tried to overturn council actions in the last year.
"The City Council did not bring this cost upon taxpayers," she said. "Wal-Mart and the chamber did."
Wal-Mart, which operates two stores in the city, currently has no plans for a local superstore.
But the nation's largest retailer has said it wanted to build 40 Supercenters in California, a proposal that has met with opposition from labor unions and some Democratic lawmakers who contend that Wal-Mart kills local businesses and depresses wages, especially for unionized grocery workers.
It is those "special interest groups" that are behind the council's ban that effectively shut out Wal-Mart, said company spokesman Roderick Scott. The proposed ban would limit consumers' choices, he said.
Although the chain has no plans to sell groceries at its downtown or Towne Center stores, "if the possibility were to pose itself, yes," the retailer would be interested in doing so, Scott said.
"Around the country, it is very clear that the one-stop shopping, the retail and grocery [combination], is very popular," he said.
The Supercenters elsewhere in California are among the company's top-earning stores, he added.