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Wal-Mart Foes Grasp at Straws
by Ron Davis
Wal-Mart has a green light to build one of its stores in Vineland, NJ, now that a local elected official has cleared himself of a charge of conflict of interest in the matter.
The charge, brought by a group of local citizens, was a last-ditch effort to stop Wal-Mart from building on the site where Two Guys Shopping Center was located in Vineland. That shopping center closed some 15 years ago and the property has since been vacant.
Wal-Mart proposed building a supercenter there, but doing so required a change in the Vineland redevelopment plan. That’s because the district in which the property is located restricts store size to a 65,000-square-foot maximum. Wal-Mart’s plans call for a 226,595-square-foot structure.
At a city council meeting open to the public, council members discussed a proposal to change the restriction on store size. They then heard several local citizens challenge Wal-Mart’s building plans. But in the end, council voted 6-0 in favor of changing the restriction to allow Wal-Mart to build the supercenter at the shopping center site.
Four local citizens appealed, asking the courts to overturn the vote of city council. The citizens pointed out that the son of one of the council members is employed by Wal-Mart and that the council member did not disclose that fact prior to his vote in favor of Wal-Mart’s Vineland plans.
Details of that father-son relationship showed, however, that the son works at a Wal-Mart store in another state (Colorado), holds a menial job there as a cashier (earning $16.50 an hour), and apparently has no ambitions for a management position. When questioned about a possible conflict of interest, the council member said he “never gave [his son’s employment] any consideration whatsoever when I voted.”
A New Jersey court, in rejecting the conflict-of-interest charge, explained that there was no evidence that the council member’s vote benefited his son working at a Wal-Mart store that was1,500 miles away. “In strains common sense to conclude,” he added, “that this remote and nebulous interest of the son with Wal-Mart, which has 1.3 million associates in 5,000 stores in 15 countries, would render the necessity for disclosure or void actions taken by the father.”
The four local citizens appealed, and a New Jersey appellate court upheld the lower court, explaining, “We agree with the finding that the son has not benefitted from his father’s official status.... The son’s employment is a circumstance...entirely too remote to be considered as tending improperly to influence the councilman’s official judgment.” (Albino v. City of Vineland, 2006 WL 36267766 [N.J.Super.A.D.])
Decision: December 2006
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