The council’s July 27 vote against the expansion was preliminary because documents had not been prepared to justify the denial – city staff had recommended approval after the Planning Commission unanimously approved it. In order to allow City Attorney Lynn Tracy Nerland time to draw up the justifications for its denial, the council scheduled the final vote for a special meeting next Tuesday, Aug. 17.
Tuesday night’s closed-door discussion concerned “significant exposure to litigation based on the council’s Walmart action,” said Nerland at the beginning of the council’s open session. “Direction was given but there was no reportable action.” Nerland added via e-mail on Wednesday that “Walmart has not filed a lawsuit nor given the City a notice of an intent to file a lawsuit.”
But that possibility is real enough that Nerland invoked Government Code Section 54956.9 in order to hold the closed session. It states, “A point has been reached where, in the opinion of the legislative body of the local agency on the advice of its legal counsel, based on existing facts and circumstances, there is a significant exposure to litigation against the local agency.”
Walmart spokeswoman Angela Stoner said via e-mail that the company has not made a decision on whether to sue: “We will be evaluating all options available to us. We have been an active member of this community for over 10 years and our goal is to continue to serve our customers and the community.”
At the July 27 meeting just before the council voted, Mayor Jim Davis warned that denying Walmart’s expansion request would make the city vulnerable to a lawsuit that has the potential to bankrupt the city. The council’s denial was the second in three years after store officials scaled down the expansion in response to the council’s concerns on its first request.
“They have every single right to sue the city,” said Davis. “If they sue the city, where are we going to have the income to defend ourselves? I don’t see that happening. We have been advised by legal counsel that we are subject to a lawsuit that we cannot defend. Walmart has done everything that’s been asked of them to do.”
Despite the mayor’s concerns, council members Reggie Moore, Martha Parsons and Mary Rocha voted to deny the expansion, citing concerns that Walmart selling groceries at lower prices than existing stores would lead to the closure of those stores, the shutdown of shopping centers and creation of urban blight in Antioch.
Unlike the previous meeting’s four-hour marathon discussion in the packed council chambers, only three residents weighed in on the issue at Tuesday night’s lightly attended meeting – all of them critical of the council’s decision.
Nancy Fernandez rhetorically asked the council members, “Why is it OK for the City of Antioch to pay contract workers $10 an hour and it’s not OK for Walmart to do the same?”
Martin Fernandez said the concern that other grocery stores would close was not based on official warnings from those stores’ management. He pointed out that Walmart’s parking lot was packed with customers earlier in the day, showing a lot of support for the store. “Disregard your emotions and political endorsements and vote honestly, representing all of the people of Antioch like you were elected to do,” he said.
Another longtime resident pointed out that Walmart wants to expand by 33,000 square feet, “which is not even the size of a medium supermarket. And this is going to cause three major supermarkets to close and 160 people will be unemployed? The largest impact it would have would be on Winco, the other discount, non-union store in the area. It would merely draw shoppers back to Antioch.”
The council members did not respond to the comments.
In other action Tuesday night, the council received a report affirming that Antioch’s drinking water meets state standards and is safe to drink.
The council also approved the relocation and remodel of Mike’s Auto Body Shop on West 10th Street. Martin Fernandez said he supports the auto body shop’s request but argued that, according to the council’s logic in its Walmart decision, the council should deny it because there are 13 other auto body shops in Antioch. “Aren’t you worried about one or two of those going out of business and causing blight?” he asked.
Council members responded that the site for the shop has been an eyesore, and that the remodeled building will be a significant improvement on that prominent location near Auto Center Drive.
In addition, the council has tentatively scheduled the next Quality of Life Forum for Sept. 18 or 25 at either the El Campanil Theatre, Lone Tree Golf and Event Center or Deer Valley High School auditorium.