In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic, “Music Man,” Professor Harold Hill portrays a con artist who rides the rails into the small town of River City, Iowa. Outside of town, Hill has a wide reputation as a flim-flam artist scamming people out of their money. Hill strikes upon the idea of forming a boys band – with no intentions to do so to take orders for musical instruments and uniforms.
To convince people of the need for a boys band, Hill stirs fear that the presence of a new pool hall is on the verge of corrupting the youth. The far-flung conclusion works as a the gullible are swindled. City fathers wise up and ask to see his credentials, which he can’t produce because he’s a fraud. A traveling anvel salesman warns others that Hill “don’t know one note from another….he’s nothing but a two-bit thimble rigger.”
I see a lot of Harold Hill in attorney Brett Jolley, the pied piper against the Ceres Walmart Supercenter (which has been approved by the Planning Commission and Ceres City Council). Hill was in town to get people to buy something; Jolley has been in town asking people to not buy something – the Walmart Supercenter. But check the similarities: Both are motivated by money, not conviction. Both create flimsy issues to achieve a desired frenzy. Both have reputations outside of town. Both are eventually found out for who they are.
Jolley has tried conning Ceres into believing the Walmart Supercenter was poorly studied and that its construction would be the worst occurrence to hit Ceres aside from nuclear warfare. Jolley’s inherit problem is the public is not on his side. Most Cereans – an estimated 60 to 80 percent – actually want the store to be built at Service and Mitchell roads.
Once the city approved the Walmart project, his goal is now to delay construction as long as possible by tying things up in court with the true hope of getting the court to invalidate the city’s approval. Jolley filed suit on Oct. 12 to challenge the city approval, using his favorite tool in his bag of tricks: claiming five years of environmental studies weren’t adequate.
Who’s Jolley trying to fool? Google the words “Brett Jolley Walmart” and see what you get. Jolley makes a living going from town to town to block the Walmart giant, drawing cocky comparisons of himself to David against Goliath. Unlike the epic biblical story, Jolley often only delays the giant, not bring him down.
The Ceres project has gone down like other Walmart projects in other towns. The method of operation goes like this. Local townsfolk who dislike Walmart (generally pro unionists or not-in-my-backyard types) are contacted. Jolley and others get them to form an opposition group, send them out with talking points and turn them loose to protest, protest, protest. Anything and everything is used. If an issue with the project is resolved by city staff, they have an arsenal of other issues so that the issue never rests. The groups also name themselves to give a local grassroots feel. If you don’t believe me consider that Jolley was involved with the Merced Alliance for Responsible Growth, Friends of Madeira, Crescent Heritage Coalition, American Canyon Community United for Responsible Growth, Milpitas Coalition for a Better Community and The Association for Sensible and Informed Planning (Clovis).
Our local protest group selected the tag of “Citizens for Ceres,” which raised hackles of the community which overwhelmingly supports the project. Supporters of the Supercenter rightfully claim the “Citizens” name falsely portrays itself as representing the majority of citizens, for which they certainly do not. Walmart has garnered petitions signed by 10,000 in support of the Supercenter. The Citizens group, as best as we can tell, numbers around 100.
Many are rightfully questioning who is bankrolling this group’s effort. How can a rag-tag group of 90-100 support the exorbitant legal fees of a high-priced legal eagle like Jolley for years? Who actually paid for all those “robo calls” designed to get Walmart foes to turn out at public meetings? Or that expensive Bee ad?
Ask yourself this: What local citizen gets so fired up that they are able to raise tens of thousands of dollars of their own money to fight a national chain who merely wants to move its store two miles down the road? Why would members work at fevered pitch – indeed fired up zealously – to battle Walmart?
Or is it all smoke and mirrors and some other force at work?
The Wall Street Journal indicates in its 2010 article, “Rival Chains Secretly Fund Opposition to Wal-Mart,” that it’s union shops secretly waging the war as they hide behind propped-up citizen groups. The WSJ found evidence that Wal-Mart competitors, such as Safeway, were paying Saint Consulting Group to thwart expansion of Wal-Mart’s retail and distribution centers in various cities, including Merced.
Rumors – some repeated by city officials – have it that the local effort is being waged by possibly Save Mart and Food 4 Less.
The Citizens group is being less than honest. In an Oct. 12 press release, Sherri Jacobson states that the Citizens group does “not oppose Walmart and we support the existing store continuing its operations.” That’s at odds with excerpts from letters to the editor from various members of the Citizens group which this paper has published since 2007. Take Rick Rushton’s March 5, 2008 letter in which he chides Walmart for “numerous part-time low-paying jobs.” James R. Vinyard, another Citizen member, wrote that Walmart sells “cheap Chinese-made products.” On Sept. 19, 2007 the Courier published Sherri Jacobson’s letter in which she stated: “Walmart, with all of its political influence and financial power, has a dark side! Walmart has had alleged instances of products being made using sweatshops or alleged slave labor. It’s the largest, richest retailer in the world and outsources the most goods from China of anyone…”
The fight against the Walmart Supercenter was never really about the merits of the project. Oh sure, there were people with legitimate concerns about traffic and other impacts. The shopping center is totally appropriate as far as location and zoning and infrastructure is concerned. No, it’s all about unnamed competitors fighting the retail giant – trying to delay it as long as possible – and hiding behind a token group of community pawns who throw everything but the kitchen sink at the project hoping something sticks. One just merely look at the myriad of fear mongering tactics – some ridiculous – lobbed at the project and you realize it was oppose, oppose, oppose and find some issues to stop it.
Ellie Wooten, former mayor of Merced, noted the deceptive practice in her and other towns. She wrote that clandestine operations often take place without the knowledge of elected officials who reject Wal-Mart projects that appeared seemingly controversial or opposed by the general populus, when in fact, the opposition was fabricated by a consulting group that prides itself as ‘Wal-Mart killers.’ “
I’ve no respect for Jolley nor his Pawns Against Walmart groups. If you ask me, the Citizens group ought to break open their books and let us follow the money trail. No doubt it’ll lead us right where we suspect – competing grocers who pay to stifle competition and free enterprise at the cost of a community, mostly those who merely want to stretch their dollars as far as they can in this economic downturn.