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Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2006 | With upward of 2,000 community members anticipated at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, the gathering promises to be an unusually large civic exercise in chambers more accustomed to sparse crowds.

And with elected leaders scheduled to decide whether to ban Wal-Mart Superstores and regulate most other types of big-box retailers in San Diego, big crowds are exactly what one side involved in the debate desires.

Several senior citizens say they have been contacted by self-identified Wal-Mart employees who have offered them a free lunch for coming to speak out against the ban at the meeting, and free transportation to get there. The company also acknowledges that it has promised to validate parking for at least some of its supporters who show up.

Clairemont resident Raymond Gaddi said the employees found few takers when they interrupted his bridge game at the LiveWell San Diego Adult Resource Network, commonly known as the Clairemont Friendship Senior Center.

“They’re bribing us to come on down. That’s my take, and many other people’s, too,” said Gaddi, who supports the ban.

According to political observers, busing in supporters to political events – though not necessarily buying them lunch – is a popular way for interest groups to make a strong showing before public officials. However, in attempts by other cities to block the opening of superstores, it has often been opponents of the retail giant, like organized labor, that have relied on the tactic.

“I’ve never heard of that before,” said Bob Stern, the president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit that advocates for government reform. “Usually, it’s union members that offer transportation to their members, so this is very unusual. And the problem is, they’re not going to be able to control these people once they there. I think this is pretty risky.”

Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin McCall said his company has been actively reaching out to the community to emphasize the importance of the vote. As part of that effort, McCall said the company has offered, to “a limited extent,” rides for some elderly customers and has promised parking validation for a few supporters.

“We’ve certainly been speaking with our customers: We’ve done different outreach through the media, we’ve talked to different community groups, different organizations to just highlight that we believe that the council is making decisions to limit consumer choice,” McCall said. “Our feeling is that the consumer is the best one to decide how to spend their shopping dollars.”

McCall said he was not aware of organized meals, though he cautioned that “there are a lot of people involved in this,” and that some sort of dining may have been arranged by other organizations working with the company.

Annette Brennan, another LiveWell regular who was present at Gaddi’s bridge game, said she remembered the incident well. Brennan, though, thought the speakers had come to scrounge up support for the ban, not against it.

“Of course, I don’t have anything against the superstore myself, and I don’t know why they don’t want a Wal-Mart; nobody explained anything about their position, as far as pro or con,” she said. “They wanted a show of hands, and I don’t think anybody volunteered.”

The senior center’s executive director, Cathy Hopper, said that the Wal-Mart advocates had been signed in as guest speakers by one center attendee.

Though Hopper said the center is open to all members of the public, formal political presentations are usually planned ahead of time and include a broad spectrum of ideas.

“The policy for our agency is that if there is someone like say a candidate for mayor or city council … I wouldn’t let them in,” Hopper said, explaining that she was told of the event only after the fact.

No worker at several other community centers contacted Monday recalled seeing any lobbying on their premises, though several said they have heard rumors that some seniors had been offered free rides and lunch.

A long-time advocate of clean government, Stern said he did not believe the outreach efforts have crossed any ethical boundaries.

“If the person feels strongly about Wal-Mart there, I don’t have a problem with Wal-Mart paying their expenses,” he said. “It would be another thing if they were offering them money.”

A spokesman for the California Fair Political Practices Commission said that organizing transportation to local government events and food for attendees violated no state laws.

Traditional grocers, which worry that they’ll see the low-cost giant undercut their prices, and union leaders have not mounted similar efforts to bring their supporters to the meeting, said Art Castanares, an organizer for an alliance that backs the proposed restrictions.

“I think it’s disingenuous to then show up to the council and say that all of these people are concerned, when they were basically paid to show up. I’ve never heard of anything like that before,” Castanares said of Wal-Mart’s organizing. “I know of a couple of other people (who plan to speak), but I have no idea of how many people are going to show up on our side. We sure aren’t busing anyone in, and we certainly aren’t offering anyone free lunches.”

But McCall defends the outreach campaign, pointing out that no one has been compelled to do anything they don’t want to.

“I think that these are people that have their own opinions, and they have volunteered to speak their opinions,” he said.

Please contact Vladimir Kogan directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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