Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Wal-Mart and Victoria Avenue: Let’s Unite Around Shared Goals, Rather Than Divide Over Tactics

One of the things I’ve learned in politics is that there are lots of ways to skin a cat. When you have a goal, you have to focus on getting to the goal itself, rather than getting stuck on any one particular way to get there.

By focusing on the goal rather than the tactics, you won’t get stuck if the tactic you have in mind doesn’t work. (Because there’s always another way to skin that cat.) Just as important, you’re also more likely to create a broad and enduring consensus about what you’re doing, because many different groups will come together to pursue the same goal, instead of fighting each other over which tactic to use. Focusing on tactics rather than goals can be divisive, because it can be harder to discover the things that different elected officials and different constituent groups have in common and how they can work together to get things done.

All this comes to mind because, in recent days, I have received quite a number of emails and phone calls from constituents asking me to immediately introduce a carbon copy of Santa Maria’s anti-big-box ordinance as a way of forestalling a Wal-Mart Supercenter at the Kmart site on Victoria Avenue. After thinking it over, I have decided not to introduce this ordinance immediately. In other words, although I share this goal I have decided pursuing this tactic is not the best way to reach the goal.

Here’s my reasoning: I think it’s better to work a bit more slowly and carefully toward a very broad-based and ensuring community consensus – which is what we’re doing with the Victoria Corridor plan and code right now. This plan and code will encourage the creation of high-quality office space in this area and almost certainly eliminate the possibility of new, extremely large-scale retail stores. To me, there’s not much point in pursuing a particular tactic, especially if it could be divisive in the midst of an election season, when we all have so much invested in a planning process already underway that will likely get us to the goal.

We in Ventura successfully used this approach – creating a broad coalition to achieve a common goal in a way that will endure over time – in passing the Living Wage Ordinance. I think we can do the same on Wal-Mart – if we focus on our shared goal.

Up to now, our local Wal-Mart opponents, such as the group Livable Ventura, have generally been supportive of our planning effort. When they have expressed an opinion about Wal-Mart itself, it has been a general concern – along the lines of, we don’t want Wal-Mart in our town because we don’t like their labor practices, or we fear additional traffic on Victoria Avenue, or we fear the impact of a Wal-Mart on other businesses in town. These are concerns I know many Venturans share and I share them too.

Recently, however, the typical communication from an anti-Wal-Mart constituent has changed. Instead of a generic concern about Wal-Mart, people have been making a very specific request that I introduce Santa Maria’s anti-big-box ordinance immediately. This is at least partly a result of some communications from the Ventura County Work People's Alliance and the Stop Wal-Mart Coalition Action Team, encouraging constituents to contact me and ask me to introduce such an ordinance.

I’ve had a good relationship with labor organizations over the past few years and the City Council has a good record on issues of interest to labor and working families. I was endorsed by the Tri Counties Central Labor Council and the Service Employees International Union in 2003. Since I have been on the Council, we have adopted a Living Wage Ordinance and we have pursued innovative inclusionary and workforce housing programs, which I have described in previous blogs. At both the city and Gold Coast Transit, whose board I sit on, we have re-established trust in negotiations with bargaining units that had long been missing.

This year, however, many labor organizations are intensely focused on Wal-Mart – and especially on Super Centers, which sell groceries. It’s understandable why. Most employees of large supermarket chains are unionized, but Wal-Mart employees aren't. There's a real concern -- a concern I share -- that a Wal-Mart supercenter enters the market, it will undercut existing supermarkets and placed unionized jobs at Vons, Ralphs, and Albertsons at risk. In other words, there's a fear that Wal-Mart will drive down the wages of supermarket workers generally. This kind of thing worries me too -- since I have always said that the gap between the high cost of living and relatively low wages is one of the biggest problems in our city.

A whole ago I had a meeting with Jim Alger of the Ventura County Working People's Alliance, an organization affiliated with the Tri-County Labor Federation, at which he asked me to introduce the Santa Maria ordinance. The Santa Maria ordinance is a typical – and perfectly legal – anti-big-box ordinance, which restricts all large retailers to using no more than 5% of their leasable floor area for the sale of non-taxable merchandise. Since groceries are exempt from taxation, such an ordinance effectively prohibits a Wal-Mart Super Center. These stores – typically 200,000 square feet or more – are a combination of a typical Wal-Mart store and a supermarket.

By the way, the Santa Maria ordinance doesn’t prevent construction of a regular Wal-Mart store (without the Super Center and groceries). In fact, there’s already a Wal-Mart in Santa Maria, which you can see from the freeway.

I told Mr. Alger that I was extremely unlikely to support a Wal-Mart Supercenter on Victoria and that, in the end, I did not think it would pass. But I declined to introduce the Santa Maria ordinance immediately, as he requested.

Over the past two weeks, I have received quite a few phone calls and emails from constituents and others asking me to introduce the Santa Maria ordinance. Many have been from people I don’t know; others have been from old and dear friends. Many have used exactly the same language that Mr. Alger used – that there is no reason not to introduce this particular ordinance if I really agree with their goal.

I always appreciate hearing from constituents, and I appreciate and respect all these communications. However, I would like to turn the “no reason not to” statement around so that we can focus on the goal rather than the tactic.

There is no reason not to vigorously pursue our broadly shared goal – a development strategy on the Victoria Corridor that prevents the construction of very large retail stores – and pursue it in a way that creates a broad consensus with enduring results, just as we did with the Living Wage Ordinance.

However, there are good reasons not to pursue this one particular tactic – immediately introducing a carbon copy of another city’s anti-big-box ordinance in the middle of a campaign season. Doing so would end-run a planning process that has been underway for two years. It may not get passed by the City Council, either before or after the election. And, in my view, all this will make it harder to achieve the goal of preventing large-scale retail development in Victoria Avenue in the future.

The Victoria planning effort began with a one-year moratorium, which has now been replaced with a special conditional use permit required for all new retail buildings in excess of 50,000 square feet, while we debate what the specifics of this corridor plan and the accompanying zoning code. We have not yet adopted the plan and the code, which is why we have put the interim steps in place.

As I noted above, the Wal-Mart opponents have generally been supportive of this process. But not everybody likes it. Those members of the Chamber PAC who think we should just go ahead and approve Wal-Mart clearly believe that the whole Victoria planning effort has been a huge waste of time and money with no benefit for the community.

There’s no question that the Victoria Corridor effort has taken more time and more money than we thought, and that it’s been pretty frustrating at times. But it has been far from useless. After lengthy debate, the Council has reached general agreement that future development along the Victoria Corridor should be focused mostly on office development, with some mixed-use. Our goal is to attract higher-wage office jobs, especially in the professional services sector, that we currently lose to Oxnard. Existing retail could be retained, but greatly expanded retail operations would be prohibited. Maximum store size would be approximately 90,000 square feet, far too small for a Wal-Mart Super Center.

Our staff is currently working on revisions to the proposed code to reflect this carefully crafted consensus. If I were to introduce this Santa Maria anti-big-box ordinance now, I’d be undercutting a lengthy and careful planning process that I have championed from the beginning and that many of my constituents who are wary of Wal-Mart have supported. I’d probably be accused by my colleagues on the council of “grandstanding” during election season – and rightly so. I’d be sending the message that I stand for thoughtful planning processes and careful consensus building – except when I am pressured by a constituent group during an election year.

And frankly, I don’t think that if I introduced the ordinance, the council would pass it – at least not now. Oddly, neither Mr. Alger nor any of the constituents who have asked me to introduce the ordinance have ever asked me if I think it would pass. But to me it’s an important consideration. I have learned from many political mentors – including Assemblymember Pedro Nava, whom I respect a great deal – that you have to pick your spots when introducing legislation. There’s no point in introducing an ordinance if you can’t get it passed.

As I said before, the council has reached consensus that we should limit the size of new retail stores along the Victoria corridor. But the council is also committed to seeing the Victoria planning process through to the end. And the members of our council – like the voters who elected them – are independent, deliberative, and sometimes stubborn. If my colleagues think I am grandstanding or trying to muscle them into adopting this ordinance, they are not likely to go along with me. And if I introduce such an ordinance now and fail – after championing the Victoria planning process all along – it will harm my ability to work successfully with my colleagues in the future on Wal-Mart and many other important issues. It will create unnecessary divisiveness on a good city council.

Which brings me back to my basic point: Let’s focus on the goal and not the tactic. This is the technique that was used successfully in passing a Living Wage Ordinance. This ordinance took a long time to pass but when it did there as an extraordinary consensus.

If we had rushed the Living Wage Ordinance to a vote, it might have failed or passed on a 4-3 vote, which would have given opponents reason to believe they could bring the ordinance back and defeat it. But because the Living Wage Coalition, which included many of the same people and organizations as the coalition opposing Wal-Mart, worked patiently and effectively with the city – simultaneously keeping the political “heat” on us and seeking allies elsewhere in the community, while also cooperating with us – the result was quite different. The council passed the ordinance unanimously, with the support of the Chamber of Commerce – the first time that had ever happened in the United States.

The lesson of the Living Wage Ordinance is that we should strive to create broad consensus around controversial issues, so that when a decision is made, it is strong and enduring. In the end, I believe we will get there on Wal-Mart. We will pass a Victoria Corridor Plan and code that will focus on office and mixed-use development and prevent the addition of very large retail stores. We will also lay the foundation for a discussion about how best to use the Kmart site, since Kmart is likely to close no matter what Wal-Mart does and we do not want a blighted sight along Victoria.

I am well aware that many constituents who are inclined to support me do not agree with me and would rather see the immediate introduction of a stronger ordinance. However, I believe that by working through the planning process that is already underway, we will be able to reach a broad and enduring consensus that we will all be happy with -- and that won't be easily undone by City Councils in the future. I look forward to working with all of you on this in the months ahead.

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