Thinking Out of the Box

Photo by Jack Gould

In a way, Wal-Mart already has swallowed up the city of Inglewood. The rolling plane of blacktop near the once-Fabulous Forum, where for 30 years Lakers fans fought for parking spots, hasn’t yet turned into a discount mega-complex, and the dusty fields next door near Hollywood Park still fill up only with horse trailers. But Wal-Mart has its eye on this spot, and for more than a year pretty much everything in Inglewood has revolved around that fact. Every City Council meeting, election and city-attorney opinion seems to have something to do with the looming presence of the world’s largest corporation.

Voters will decide April 6 whether to approve the “Homestretch at Hollywood Park,” a huge development where Wal-Mart is expected to build a Supercenter. Opponents, led by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, warn that the low-wage, big-box store combining a full-scale discount supermarket with the already massive conventional retail center will siphon business from struggling mom-and-pop enterprises and from grocery stores that employ union workers. The LAANE-led Coalition for a Better Inglewood filed suit to block the vote but was turned away late last month by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.

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Ballot measures and court hearings are nothing new for Wal-Mart, which dipped its toe into California in 1998 with a Lancaster store but now is diving in with force. The Arkansas-based giant moved into dozens of cities that find themselves caught between revulsion at the ugliness of big-box stores and the traffic problems they create, on the one hand, and the hunger for sales-tax revenue and jobs, no matter how low-paid, on the other. Just last week, voters in the north San Diego County town of San Marcos rebelled against their Wal-Mart-friendly City Council and overturned the retailer’s requested zoning change. Voters in Contra Costa County went the other way, rejecting a ballot measure that would have blocked big-box stores from selling a certain percentage of nontaxable goods — the usual formulation for ordinances aimed at stopping Supercenters.

But Inglewood is different. Never before has there been anything like this, anywhere. The Homestretch at Hollywood Park initiative asks Inglewood voters to carve a wide path through land-use law. The issues are so complex that Judge Dzintra Janavs said she could not wade through them all; yet those are the very issues to be presented to voters in the form of a 71-page ballot measure that creates a one-project exception to planning laws and administrative procedure.

Any voter who reads the whole thing and takes the time to analyze it will find that the question boils down to this: Do you want to take the duty to weigh environmental effects of a special project benefiting one company away from the city planners you pay to do this kind of work, remove discretion from your city administrators, and make sure that if you and your neighbors later change your mind about the whole thing, that you will have to muster a two-thirds vote? But in civic discourse the question is instead boiled down to this: Do you want the Wal-Mart or don’t you?

No matter which way voters go, further legal action is almost certain to follow. Wal-Mart and Inglewood will be joined at the hip for the foreseeable future.

It started, arguably, in the fall of 2002, when the Inglewood City Council passed an ordinance in the familiar anti-Supercenter format: prohibit stores of more than 155,000 square feet from selling a certain percentage of nontaxable goods (meaning groceries and pharmaceuticals). This was nothing new. It is the centerpiece of a strategy by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union to keep nonunion Wal-Mart away from union supermarket jobs. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg authored a similar ordinance in her last year on the council, but hard lobbying and legal threats by Wal-Mart moved Goldberg’s colleagues to turn the measure into a simple design ordinance. UFCW moved a statewide version of the ban through the Legislature, but then-Governor Gray Davis vetoed it.

The Inglewood ordinance came at an interesting time. City Attorney Charles Dickerson, a former aide to Jim Hahn, got into trouble with the state bar and had to resign his post. His replacement, interim City Attorney Emmerline Foote, warned the council that its anti-Wal-Mart ordinance would never hold up in court. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart circulated a referendum petition asking voters to overturn the council Supercenter ban. Even without going to the ballot the petition did its job. Wal-Mart got more than twice the number of signatures it needed, effectively suspending the ordinance. Rather than put it to the voters, the council (at Foote’s urging) repealed the ban.

At the same time, Inglewood was working through the latest episode of its always-turbulent electoral politics. Investment banker Lorraine Johnson, appointed to fill a council vacancy, ran to capture the seat on her own and ended up in a runoff. She finally won the following February. But the abbreviated term she was filling already was set to expire and she had to stand for election one more time. This time she was challenged by a former supporter: UFCW Local 770 business agent Ralph Franklin, who was running at the request of his union leadership and was making it his business to keep Wal-Mart off his turf.

Franklin came in first but ended up in a runoff with community activist Mike Stevens. Franklin prevailed in a June 2003 runoff. Johnson, who by this time had become sympathetic to Wal-Mart’s position, was out. Or was she?

Johnson sued to overturn the election, claiming Stevens should never have gotten in the runoff because he didn’t really live in the district he was running to represent. A judge agreed. Since Stevens wasn’t eligible, he ruled, the whole election had to be redone. Johnson sought to stay onboard until the new election, but by this time she had worn out her welcome on the council and her three remaining colleagues refused to reinstate her.


The Wal-Mart issue loomed over the new election, which pit UFCW’s Franklin against Johnson. In the end, Franklin won handily, and the anti-Wal-Mart forces were ecstatic, believing Inglewood voters had shown their clear preference on the issue. But in August, three residents formed the Citizens Committee to Welcome Wal-Mart to Inglewood and began collecting signatures for a new ballot measure. Not a referendum, this time, but the initiative, worded with such — the only possible word is chutzpah — that it would remove forever the ability of the council or the city administration to block, or even shape, the development.

The council debated the proposal, even though its only option was to decide when to put the matter on the ballot. The obvious date was the March 2 presidential primary. But the council continued putting off the matter so many times that it finally was too late, and they were forced to set a costly special election.

Members of the Coalition for a Better Inglewood lobbied the council to take its time and study the issue more fully before putting it on the ballot. But several community members — including Johnson — came to a council meeting in December and urged members to put the matter before the voters.

Franklin then moved to at least have the wording changed, to let residents know what they were getting. What Franklin wanted was: “Shall the Homestretch at Hollywood Park ordinance be approved, allowing a 650,000-square-foot, permanent retail/commercial development with 22,000 parking spaces with no environmental review, denying the city’s right to impart any changes to the plan?” The motion angered Mayor Roosevelt Dorn, an attorney and former judge.

“You set this council up for a lawsuit that this council cannot win,” Dorn said. He also took off after Franklin for what he said was a conflict of interest.

“I am appalled that this council will sit here and not represent the people but represent some other entity,” Dorn said, glowering at Franklin. “You aren’t representing the people. You’re representing 770, I’ll make no bones about that.”

The council passed Franklin’s motion, 3-2. But a day later, with no explanation, the council called a special meeting, reconsidered the motion, and reversed itself. Now the original language has been reinstated: “Shall the ordinance regarding the proposed development of the ‘Homestretch at Hollywood Park,’ a retail commercial project adjacent to Hollywood Park Race Track, be adopted?”

That’s what voters will have before them on April 6. That, and 71 pages of detail that confused a Superior Court judge.


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