Big Box and Vox Pop

Wal-Mart has been criticized for going around the city council of the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood and asking residents to vote on whether they wanted a superstore in their neighborhood.

Last week the nation's largest retailer lost the referendum, which was seen as a test case for the big-box store's nationwide expansion strategy - which includes moving into urban areas and, in California alone, 40 new superstores that would sell groceries in addition to dry goods.

Generally, it's not advisable to circumvent the checks and balances of a city-council approval process. For instance, a "yes" from Inglewood's voters would have meant Wal-Mart could build its "supercenter" - as big as 17 football fields - without public hearings, or traffic and environmental studies.

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And as a rule, it's also best to leave public decisionmaking to elected officials, because they have the best overview and know the details.

But Wal-Mart has become such a divisive, hot-button subject - and a political one, with Democrats and unions leading the fight against it, and Republicans rallying for consumer choice - that perhaps the populace is better suited to decide whether it wants the store in its backyard.

If anything, the vote in Inglewood showed that residents are capable of making up their own minds on this complicated issue. And Wal-Mart is complex. On the one hand, it offers communities undeniable advantages such as jobs, tax revenue, and prices that save consumers 25 to 35 percent.

On the other, its nonunion, low-wage jobs depress pay not just in a community but, because of its size, across industries. In California, state Democratic legislators complain that Wal-Mart's skimpy health-insurance coverage leaves many of its workers with no choice but the public health system. Then there's the complaint that Wal-Mart crushes local stores, and that its low-cost structure pushes its suppliers to outsource jobs to China.

The issue before residents in Inglewood was more straightforward than this. They simply voted on whether Wal-Mart should be allowed to bypass local government in building its store. But the complexities were raised in the campaign, and despite Wal-Mart outspending the opposition by a factor of 10 to 1, the company still lost.

So far, Wal-Mart has a mixed record with voters in California. Two counties supported stores, while Inglewood said "no." Outside the marketplace, Congress and the federal agencies are the best places to settle the macroeconomic issues swirling around Wal-Mart. But when it comes to location, it's obvious that local populations have strong feelings. They should be allowed their say.

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