Up Against the Wal-Mart

Only Huntington Beach voters get to cast ballots on Measure I during the March 7 election, but a "yes" vote on the question will send important benefits beyond the city limits and throughout Orange County.

On its face, the measure would simply rezone the 13 acres of land that used to be Crest View Elementary School to residential status. This makes sense, since Crest View sits in the middle of a working-class residential neighborhood. Measure I would reverse a city zoning change made just more than a year ago to facilitate a controversial plan to build a massive Wal-Mart on the old school site. Put simply, Measure I makes it impossible for Huntington Beach officials ever to build a Wal-Mart—or any other commercial outlet —at the Crest View site.

But Measure I also provides Huntington Beach residents a wider opportunity. Measure I will kill an insider deal that—in the words of one anti-Wal-Mart city councilman—"defecates on democracy." Measure I will thwart the plans of powerful right-wing bazillionaire and El Toro International Airport superbooster George Argyros—the Wal-Mart developer —to ride roughshod over local residents in his quest to get even richer. But mostly, Measure I is a chance to reverse a long-standing trend throughout Orange County's local governments that places the needs of big corporations and developers ahead of mere residents and citizens.

The proposed Wal-Mart development exemplifies what's worst about Orange County politics:

•The Ocean View School District (OVSD), which still owns the Crest View site, passed over far more lucrative bids in favor of Wal-Mart. First, district superintendent James Tarwater explained that "city pressure" for a high-sales-tax use sent them to the big-box retailer. Later, district officials backpedaled, saying the other bids—one of which would have returned twice the Wal-Mart lease payments—were "not serious."

•The OVSD consultant collecting the Crest View bids was none other than Wayne Wedin, whose recent advice to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) netted him $1 million in fees; the LAUSD recently announced it cannot even use the ludicrously expensive and prohibitively dangerous Belmont School that Wedin helped them build.

•Had the OVSD merely sold the Crest View land, it could have reaped more than $7 million, which, if invested for the next 65 years or so (the term of the Wal-Mart lease) with a modest 10 percent return, could have netted them nearly $2 billion—far, far more than even the $30 million to the grossly inflated $100 million figure currently used by Wal-Mart supporters to describe total revenues for both the school district and the city.

•Both Wal-Mart developer Argyros and Huntington Beach Mayor Dave Garofalo are major investors in recent start-up Pacific Liberty Bank. In addition, Garofalo is a member of the Pacific Liberty board of directors. Their relationship at Pacific Liberty predates the City Council's final vote to approve the Wal-Mart—a fact not disclosed during the actual vote.

The last point is what makes Measure I so important. Argyros needed city backing for his big Wal-Mart project, and Garofalo was there to help by voting to approve it. Garofalo needed start-up capital for his new bank, and Argyros was there with a check for $100,000. The Orange County grand jury, district attorney's office and Huntington Beach city attorney all deny the relationship between Garofalo and Argyros is improper. The state Fair Political Practices Commission is still investigating.

Despite the rhetoric from Wal-Mart supporters about "starting out behind" in the campaign, Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart has already sent more than $227,000 west to the stop-Measure I crowd—more than 20 times the amount raised by the residents trying to reassert control over their own neighborhood. Much of that money has already been spent on hundreds of street signs, thousands of glossy mailers, and high-powered political consultants like San Diego pro-development campaign strategist Tom Shepard—whose current clients include the South County cities fighting Argyros' El Toro International Airport.

Right now, Crest View is a quiet neighborhood. The residents who live there would like to keep it that way. To stop the Wal-Mart development, they gathered more than 22,000 signatures (7,000 more than necessary) to place Measure I on the ballot. Their goal is simple—to keep life in their neighborhood as it is.

But even if they win, Measure I's backers may lose. Argyros, in an act of supreme arrogance, has threatened to reopen his old lawsuit against the anti-Wal-Mart forces and the city of Huntington Beach should Measure I pass. If Argyros is successful, what remains of Huntington Beach's democracy will die alongside the Crest View neighborhood.

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