[Metroactive News&Issues]

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

Another Brick in the Wal: Gregory cops a wait-and-see attitude.

Public Eye

Mart Smart

Guess who's coming to Story Road? Say yello to Wal-Mart, the Arkansas-based retail giant that sells 10 percent of America's merchandise and has a work force the size of San Jose, with annual sales bigger than the gross domestic product of Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium or Malaysia and which stopped selling men's magazines Maxim, Stuff and FHM (because they show too much skin) and a Sheryl Crow CD (because she sang about Wal-Mart's gun sales). In snatching the Super Kmart lease at 777 Story Road out of a Kmart bankruptcy auction instead of applying for a new use permit, the world's hugest company cleverly avoided the usual community controversies over its low wages, impact on established community retailers, embrace of offshore manufacturing, and resistance to providing health benefits to most of its workers. ... A controversy erupted in 1997 when Mayor Susan Hammer and the San Jose City Council voted to boycott pre-bankrupt Super Kmart over its failure to endorse labor's view of what constitutes a living wage in these parts. The boycott, which drew national attention and a visit by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, allowed the councilmembers to grandstand on the issue while the city approved the use and captured the sales tax revenues from the big box discounter. The store closed in mid-April in what Kmart officials pray is the tail end of a 600-store shuttering spree that included an estimated 37,000 firings. Kmart declared its emergence from Chapter 11 on May 6. "It's almost like a clean slate," says Kmart optimist Stephen Pagnani. ... Wal-Mart spokesflaks say the city won't even notice a change. "It's really important to us that we are fitting in with the surrounding community," says Wal-Mart's Cali spokeslady Amy Hill. She assures Eye that Wal-Mart intends to keep the building the same except for inside remodeling and sign changes. That means the store will remain a modest 173,000 square feet, and there will be no auto lube or grocery component. So, absent a change-of-use permit application, the City Council can't do anything about the new tenant. Terry Gregory, the reputed labor-lovin' councilmember into whose domain Wal-Mart will move, isn't ready to publicly commit to an opinion anyway. "We're going to look at this from all angles," says Gregory's Guy Friday Craig Mann. "There are multiple interests that this would affect and we just need to be respectful of all of them." One interest might be the cold-dead-hand lobby. Between March and April, the attorney general found more than 300 gun-selling violations at Wal-Mart stores in the Central Valley. Clerks forgot to get thumbprints and signatures, and just couldn't freakin' wait the 10 days to deliver product. Wal-Mart's gun ban spokesman Tom Williams says that the voluntary ban, initiated last month, is only the company's way of showing its commitment to responsible salesmanship, "until we could be sure our training was sufficient for people who sell guns." (Granted, if Wal-Mart didn't "voluntarily" stop selling guns, says attorney general press handler Hallye Jordan, "We would have shut them down.") Ron Lind, secretary treasurer of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, was the point guy on the Kmart boycott effort, and disagrees with the Pollyannas who predict a breezy transition. He says there are plenty of reasons to hate Wal-Mart and that the UFCW continues to work with the Teamsters and others locally and nationally to oppose Wal-Mart's world domination. "We're very concerned," he says. "Wal-Mart is a retail predator. Where they have gone, other businesses have failed."

Upside-Down Frown

The big question in the race to succeed termed-out Assemblymember Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) is exactly when the other shoe is going to drop. Not a shoe exactly, but rather the entrance of a last-minute candidate who insiders say is better positioned to walk away with the nomination and a two-year term in Sacramento. Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss has been busy talking up Palo Alto City Councilmember Judy Kleinberg as the best person for the job, because of her bona fides (attorney, law professor, policy analyst) and because it's high time that a woman represents the district, Kniss says. Kleinberg, for her part, is being demure. While admitting she's been approached by admirers interested in seeing her run for the seat, she claims her high beams are focused only on campaigning for re-election to the City Council this November. One complication, however: Kleinberg's chairing of the infamous committee that tried to impose a no-frowning rule on quarreling members of the Palo Alto City Council, garnering national ridicule. Her potential opponents are treating the subject with kid gloves, but no doubt those gloves will come off if Kleinberg jumps into the Assembly race for real. "It could be raised as an issue," allows Assembly wannabe Chris Kelly. In Kleinberg's favor is the fact that the current field of candidates is as weak as a mixed drink at a gentlemen's club. Redwood City Councilmember Ira Ruskin is a virtual unknown in most of the district. Palo Alto school board member John Barton may be best known for a messy fight with the council's Liaison Committee (headed by lightning-rod Councilmember Nancy Lytle). Third candidate Palo Alto attorney Chris Kelly lost in last year's Palo Alto City Council election. And as for John Carcione, 27, president of Menlo Park's West Bay Sanitary District, his biggest claim to fame is that his grandfather was a much beloved TV vegetable guru. Protests aside, insiders say Kleinberg has her sights set on Sacramento and is privately doing everything to be in a position to run as soon as she's re-elected to the City Council. As one knowledgeable observer told Eye, "My impression of her as a candidate is that she'd be far more effective [in state office] than at the local level. That's where her heart is."

Charter Envy

A recent agenda item from the Santa Clara County Board of Supes' pushing for a property transfer-tax increase betrays a long-held secret jealousy. Chartered cities, not counties, have the authority to increase property-transfer taxes. Naturally, this rankles cash-strapped Santa Clara County. So, the board's Legislative Committee, headed up by Supe Jim Beall, earlier this month seized upon a staff proposal aiming to give counties the same authority to raise property-transfer taxes that tax-happy cities get. State law dating back to 1968 gives counties the permission to tack on 55 cents per $500 or $1.10 per $1,000 in taxes on a property sale. Charter cities, meanwhile, follow rates set by their city councils. Three of Santa Clara County's four charter cities--San Jose, Morgan Hill and Palo Alto--levy higher rates than the county. Meanwhile, other cities outside the county have even higher rates. Oakland, for example, charges $15 per $1,000 value of property transferred compared to San Jose's $3.30. Santa Clara County, apparently, just wants a piece of the action. "I don't see a lot of information [in the language of the agenda item] other than it's an increase of taxes," moans George Swenson, president of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association, which prefers not to pay more taxes. "We're in a state of recession in the valley. There's a lot of people in trouble--let's just bury us by adding more taxes. ... Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction of our local politicians is, If we have a problem, then increase taxes." Beall, the county's affordable-housing warrior (who is seeking the Assembly seat being vacated by Rebecca Cohn, who is vying for a state Senate seat), meanwhile, has the same gripes. Not only is he philosophically opposed to taxing debt, an obvious result of a property-transfer tax that's based on the market value of a home, but Beall is also wary of any tax proposal that targets specific citizens rather than the general public. "It tends to hit first-time home buyers really hard," he says, "the same people who have a hard time putting together a down payment for their first house."

Don't Forget to Tip: Leave messages by calling 408.200.1342. Or email eye@metronews.com

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

From the May 15-21, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate