Wal-Mart politics irk unions, may jeopardize Measure K support.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
With Wal-Mart tiptoeing its permit through City Hall to add a second store in Salinas, angry union officials and a city councilwoman are dishing out late-in-the-game blame. The unions say Mayor Dennis Donohue and City Manager Artie Fields accelerated Wal-Mart’s plans for two supercenter-like stores behind closed doors. Councilwoman Jyl Lutes says Donohue used Measure K, the 1-cent public safety sales tax on the Nov. 3 ballot, as a “football” to resolve the divisive Wal-Mart issue.
Wal-Mart quietly pulled building permits on July 29 to remodel both its Westridge store and its new store at the former Home Depot site to offer groceries and a pharmacy. Since Wal-Mart isn’t expanding the building footprints, the permits can be approved over the counter, says City Attorney Vanessa Vallarta. Within the next two weeks, the permit center expects to issue Wal-Mart’s permits.
The union’s beef centers on a convoluted council motion made in June. Choosing not to battle Wal-Mart at the ballot box, the City Council voted to repeal a big box ordinance that would have restricted the amount of square footage Wal-Mart dedicated to groceries. The council, on a 4-3 vote, directed staff to negotiate with Wal-Mart about addressing traffic impacts and “look at a Conditional Use Permit for larger retail stores over 75,000 square feet.”
“We want that conditional use permit,” says Cesar Lara, executive director of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council. “Now we hear that Wal-Mart submits their plans and the city manager and mayor are trying to fast-track it. They are not listening to the rest of the City Council.”
Tony Alexander, political director for UFCW Local 5, which represents 600 to 700 grocery workers in Salinas, says the union was expecting another public hearing about the proposed stores’ traffic and economic impacts. “We want to make sure the Wal-Mart process continues to go out in the public,” Alexander says. The unions were planning a press conference on the matter Wednesday, past the Weekly’s deadline.
But Mayor Dennis Donohue says the notion that he or City Manager Artie Fields didn’t follow council’s direction is “categorically false,” adding that there was no clear directive for a CUP.
Lutes, who made the motion, says the CUP was optional if Wal-Mart didn’t negotiate, but the world’s largest retailer did. Councilman Steve Villegas says Wal-Mart put up a $100,000 bond to ensure the Westridge store would stay open and agreed to pay roughly $500,000 in traffic fees.
“We put our trust into our city staff to work out the best deal,” Villegas says. “What a CUP would have done wasn’t really much different.” (Wal-Mart representatives could not be reached by the Weekly’s deadline.)
The Wal-Mart dustup comes as city attention shifts to Measure K, which officials are counting on to hire additional police officers to get a grip on Salinas’ incessant gang violence. The Wal-Mart issue split labor, which wanted to limit the corporation, and ag and business leaders, who wanted the city to welcome Wal-Mart. The “Penny for Peace” campaign is now seeking support from both interests.
“There is no question that people felt that if [Wal-Mart] didn’t move forward that Measure K would be in jeopardy,” Lutes says. “I’m frustrated that Measure K is being used as a football in this thing.”
She says Donohue and Councilwoman Janet Barnes, the two business-friendly politicians who opposed the big box ordinance, wanted the Wal-Mart issue resolved to help win support from the Grower-Shipper Association and Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Donohue denies this. “I have no comment on idle speculation,” he says. “Measure K does not have to be used as a football. It speaks for itself. There is no more critical issue in the future of Salinas than the success of Measure K.”
Barnes did not return calls for comment.
The Grower-Shipper Association is supporting the measure; the Chamber of Commerce is coming out against the tax, and the Central Labor Council on Tuesday voted toendorse it. The campaign has raised $4,210, according to its latest statement, while accruing $14,769 in expenses.
With or without Measure K, Wal-Mart is close to finalizing its deal with the city.
The new store is expected to open in June, Villegas says, and then Wal-Mart will remodel the Westridge store.