Fact Check: The Cost of a Walmart Special Election

Image: trueStatement: “If this signature drive is successful, the city may have to call a special election sometime next year at a cost of $2.5 million,” KUSI recently reported about a petition aimed at repealing new regulations for big box stores like Walmart.

Determination: True

Analysis: Local debate over big box stores like Walmart intensified in recent weeks as the City Council added regulations that make them harder to build.

Before receiving permits for a store larger than 90,000 square feet, the new rules require the store to study its potential impact on existing business. If the impact is found to be negative, the City Council can stop the proposed store.

Opponents argue that the new process would ban big stores like Walmart, saying any study would show that a new store adds competition to the local market — a negative impact for existing businesses. That would give the Democrat-controlled City Council the legal means to vote against the permits.

So Walmart is collecting signatures to repeal the new rules through a ballot measure next year. If it submits enough — at least 31,000 — the city would be required to hold an election within 11 months.

Since there are no regular elections scheduled next year, the city would have to hold a special election specifically for the measure. That means it could end up paying the election’s full cost.

An election’s price tag can vary, but comes from distributing ballot materials, printing ballots and paying poll workers. The county Registrar of Voters, which runs the city’s elections like a contractor, calculates the final bill.

The city clerk has previously estimated a cost between $2.5 million and $3 million. Deborah Seiler, who oversees the Registrar of Voters, said a special election next year would more likely cost the city $2.8 million to $3.4 million. It would cost less if other municipalities hold special elections at the same time and share costs with the city.

Had Walmart’s petition happened before a scheduled election, the city’s cost would be significantly less. San Diego’s bill for the November election, for example, is estimated at $751,000. (Seiler estimates the total cost for all municipalities was $12.9 million.)

While KUSI’s cost estimate falls within that ballpark — making the statement true — it’s worth noting in this case that Walmart’s petition may never reach voters.

If Walmart submits enough signatures, the City Council would be forced to consider its petition to repeal the ordinance. The council either approves the petition and repeals the ordinance or pays for a special election and puts the decision before voters.

Since the ordinance was created, the City Council has two new members, one who supports a repeal: Councilwoman Lorie Zapf. The decision would come down to newly elected Councilman David Alvarez.

The City Council passed the ordinance shortly after voters elected Zapf and Alvarez Nov. 2. During those council discussions, Alvarez testified as a member of the public in favor of the ordinance. When asked about his position on the ordinance Wednesday, Alvarez said his mind isn’t made up.

If Alvarez joins the opposition, the ordinance would be repealed without going before voters. If he joins the supporters, however, then the city must reach into its pockets and pay for a special election.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

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Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle.

 

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Keegan Kyle

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