Pleasanton City Councilman Matt Sullivan single-handedly blocked a final vote Monday night on a measure that would have allowed Walmart to open one of its Neighborhood Markets at the site of the long-vacant Nob Hill supermarket on Santa Rita Road.
Using a procedural rule that allows any member of the council to postpone a vote until the next regularly scheduled City Council meeting, Sullivan waited until the end of a three-hour public hearing in a crowded Firehouse Arts Theater auditorium to make his bid.
More than 200 attended the hearing, held at the Firehouse Center because the council chambers at the Pleasanton Civic Center were considered too small to accommodate the expected large crowd.
A total of 49 from the audience addressed the council, with just under half supporting Walmart while many of the others wore "No to Walmart" stickers. Some of those identified themselves as Safeway store employees who said a Walmart grocery store could result in less business for Safeway and other Pleasanton markets and cause employee reductions at those stores.
Although Mayor Jennifer Hosterman and council members Cheryl Cook-Kallio, Cindy McGovern and Jerry Thorne supported Walmart, arguing the store had the right to open on the already-approved old Nob Hill site, they will have to wait until the council meeting on May 15 to actually cast their votes.
At that meeting, scheduled to start at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at 200 Old Bernal Ave., Hosterman is expected to re-open the public hearing. Comments could again be made at that meeting although it is possible that the process will move more quickly with a 4-1 vote to allow Walmart to open here, with Sullivan expected to cast the lone negative vote.
Monday night's meeting actually was to hear an appeal by Sullivan of earlier decisions by the council and, before that, by the city's Planning Commission, to accept the recommendation of the city zoning administrator who found that Walmart's proposed Neighborhood Market will have the same "footprint" of the Nob Hill store, which gained approval to operate a full service supermarket in 1982. Except for a name change and the addition of a pharmacy, the Walmart market will meet all of the requirements of the 1982 planned unit development approval, which goes with the property.
In an effort to further delay the Walmart application, Sullivan also cited recent national reports of bribery charges against the global retailer in Mexico and possibly other countries. He asked the council to support his bid to halt further consideration of the Walmart application until city staff could investigate the charges and determine if Walmart financial backing through the Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce political action committee had improperly influenced Pleasanton elections as well.
Others on the council declined to support Sullivan's request for an investigation and his proposal failed to qualify for a vote.
Although there were a few catcalls and loud chuckles from the audiences Monday night, the public hearing was mostly orderly as speaker after speaker went to floor microphones in the Firehouse auditorium to comment on the Walmart bid, or more precisely, on the motion to deny Sullivan's appeal of the council's early approval of the Neighborhood Market. Few, as one speaker, Brad Hirst, noted actually spoke to the issue: Does Walmart have the right to re-open a market in the same building already approved for a grocery store at the Nob Hill site?
Addressing the council, he said: "The core issue here is do you as a city have the right and authority to tell people where they can shop or not shop? Once you say you have that authority and control, there's no end to it."
Another speaker said, "Walmart is not relevant. The tenant in this shopping center is not relevant. The application is consistent with the zoning ordinance and there's been no evidence presented tonight to rebut that."
Generally, the comments supporting the Walmart bid focused on the right of businesses to locate on pre-approved zoning sites regardless of the name of the store, with speakers pointing out the if this was an application by Whole Foods or another less controversial retailer, there would be no hesitance by city officials to grant an occupancy permit.
For those opposed to Walmart, their comments were much along those lines: opposition to the retailer because of its non-union workforce, wages tht are considered below scale and inadequate health benefits for many of its employees who work only part-time.
But Walmart representatives at the hearing disputed that. Several said they started their careers at Walmart and have achieved management positions with good salaries and benefits.