Special Late-Night Extra Edition — Bring on the Hog Ranch


Pigs are looking good in Reno

At 12:37 a.m. PST on 11-29-2K, citizens of northwest Reno succeeded where many others have not. They defeated a Wal-Mart big box superstore.

After hearing more than six hours of testimony, the Reno City Council voted 5-2 to deny a special use permit for the world's largest retailer.

One of the few citizens to speak in support of Wal-Mart told the story of a hotel owner in San Luis Obispo, Calif., who failed four times to get a superstore approved under similar circumstances.

"I asked him what he was going to do with the property. He said probably start a pig farm."

Overcoming my natural instincts for grace and decorum, I called for a show of hands of those in favor of pigs. The swine sty won hands down.

Getting down with the little barnyard animals constituted my personal high-water mark of contribution to the debate, other than videotaping key segments and passing out last Sunday's Barbwire column. I was proud to have been a small part of a true exercise in representative government.

Reno City Hall was packed with sensible citizens who demanded to be heard and were. Wal-Mart had shills in the crowd, almost all of whom were spiritless young employees.

The only presentation on Wal-Mart's behalf which made only ironic sense came from the manager of nearby senior citizen apartments. She said her renters looked forward to the minimum wage, part-time jobs which would be available at Wally World. It's a sad note when the elderly look forward to exploitation. Northwest Reno resident Evelyn Summers said Wal-Mart wages constituted "slave labor."

Ironically, Wal-Mart traffic expert David Peters' refusal to answer Councilmember Sherrie Doyle's persistent questions on Wal-Mart's apparent lack of planning for pedestrian safety became perhaps the biggest single undercut to the company's credibility.

Later in the evening, after community activist Pam duPre submitted photos showing Wal-Mart in wholesale violation of Reno city ordinances, Wal-Mart was caught in an outright lie.

Wal-Mart spokesman Rick Valasko said Wal-Mart has never been cited for exceeding the city's limits on placing portable metal storage cubicles on its parking lots.

Reno citizens were ready with the goods and submitted copies of citations for the record. Mrs. duPre presented photos showing Wal-Mart with more than 60 storage containers on its Northtowne parking lot, slightly exceeding the city limit of three. (It's aparently cheaper to rent steel cubes at $50 per month apiece than expand a building, especially one which might soon be abandoned.

When challenged with photographic evidence of illegal RV parking, Wal-Mart brusquely refused a council request to start notifying RV campers to leave. Valasko said such matters were up to Reno police. Councilmember Dave Aiazzi sternly reminded Valasko that Wal-Mart sits on private property and it's the company's responsibility to make sure customers comply with the law.

A Reno police officer testified that crime increased when the Northtowne Wal-Mart opened and that he foresaw similar circumstances in northwest Reno. (Northtowne is 4.75 miles from the northwest Reno location, but has no grocery section, raising suspicions that it will soon be among the more than 160 Wal-Marts marked for closure this year. Closing Northtowne would turn the proposed northwest Reno superstore from grinding nuisance to ghastly gridlock.)

The stage for defeat was set early when a member of the Northwest Reno Advisory Board brought forth information from the National Law Journal noting how Wal-Mart has been fined $18 million after having been found in contempt of court for refusing discovery in major litigation. (Editor's note: On January 7, 2001, the CBS weekly newsmagazine 60 Minutes aired a story delineating Wal-Mart's atrocious record of lying to the courts and stonewalling plaintiff discovery requests. One judge called it the worst she's ever seen. In Nevada, 60 Minutes reported that Wal-Mart was fined $15,000 for similar legal abuses.)

Wal-Mart was hoist on its own petard when Valasko later lied to the council.

Northwest Reno resident Charles Hauntz capped 12 straight strong presentations (each citizen is limited to three minutes) for the ad hoc neighborhood working group. He researched the original 1988 minutes of a zoning change meeting whereat developer Ed Ricks, who still represents the property owners, told the Reno Planning Commission that he was providing for every type of retail save two: groceries and a major discount store, exactly Wal-Mart's current plan. Hauntz thus scored the first of several hoists to come.

Evelyn Summers brought the crowd to laughter when she noted that "if you approve this, the River Styx will be frozen over for ice skating before I ever buy at Wal-Mart."

She added that she had returned a Wal-Mart postcard solicitation asking neighbors to support the superstore.

"I've changed my mind," she said, noting her irritation at Wal-Mart's continued letters and phone calls pestering her to testify in the corporation's behalf.

Seeing defeat looming, local zoning fixer Jeff Codega came sputtering to the microphone. Codega, whose speaking style reminds one of the Federal Express TV fast talker, actually slowed down in expressing his disbelief that his deficient presentation would not win.

After the dust settled, the last two constituents in the council chamber were former council candidate Mike Tracy (narrowly defeated by Aiazzi on Nov. 7) and myself. The council had some minor items to process and we weren't leaving till they formally adjourned. Outside in the foyer, about 14 Wal-Mart suits milled around in a circle, licking their wounds. In an uncharacteristic display of diplomacy and charitable courtesy, I did not videotape their commiserations.

The Reno City Council judged this one strictly on facts presented for the record. The vote spanned the political spectrum. Three of the anti-Wal-Mart votes were from members whose candidacies had been endorsed by organized labor: Doyle, Jessica Sferrazza-Hogan and Aiazzi. Mrs. Sferrazza-Hogan, daughter of former Reno Mayor Pete Sferrazza, is a newly elected Democrat.

Doyle and Councilman Pierre Hascheff switched party affiliation from Democrat to Republican after taking office. (Reno council hopefuls do not run as partisan candidates.)

Councilmember Toni Harsh defeated two-term incumbent Tom Herndon on November 7. The labor-endorsed candidate in that race, Reno-Tahoe Airport Trustee Larry Martin, did not survive the primary. Mrs. Harsh is a registered Republican, as is Mayor Jeff Griffin, by far the most surprising anti-Wal-Mart vote. Hizzoner was very emphatic that he favored the project, just not before measures are in place to mitigate the impacts, especially traffic.

Attorney-CPA Hascheff proved to be Wal-Mart's staunchest advocate. He was recently re-elected to a third term and was endorsed by organized labor. The other vote for Wal-Mart came from first-term Councilman David Rigdon. When I worked on his first campaign for council in 1993, Rigdon was a 22 year-old, less-government Libertarian who sought labor support. He went on to re-register Republican and became the most pro-development member of the Reno Planning Commission. He was elected to the council with Mayor Griffin's help.

Rigdon said that the traffic expert hired by the neighborhood advocates actually convinced him to support Wal-Mart because some portion of that material agreed with city staff and Wal-Mart's expert.

Go figure.

The bottom line: the five votes against the voracious Arkansas Razorback came from no discernible political party or ideology. Jessica Sferrazza-Hogan, at 26, became the youngest person ever elected to the council, breaking Rigdon's record. Hizzoner is as pro-business as they come. Opponents were hoping that a rumor about his potential absence would prove true allowing Vice-Mayor Doyle to chair the meeting.

If you live in Reno-Sparks and want instant replay, Sierra Nevada Community Access Television usually rebroadcasts local council meetings several times. Check the SNCAT website for specifics.

Any letters or comments are welcome at the ever-expanding and frequently updated NevadaLabor.com Wal-Mart War Room.

Wally World ain't going anyplace. They've already broken ground on another big box in the high-income area of south Reno and this northwest sucker will be back, probably in the form of a lawsuit.

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

Not even Wal-Mart can mark that price down.

Be well. Raise hell.

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© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 31-year Nevadan, a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of NevadaLabor.com. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.

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