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The Cost of Cut-Rate Democracy

Can you hear that, Inglewood?

That’s the sound of the good ol’ billionaires in Bentonville, Ark. -- and their good ol’ lawyers and accountants. They’re sitting back there in their Ozark offices right now, counting their money and laughing to beat the band. At you.

Get a load of that Inglewood, they must be saying -- ready to sell its birthright to us for a mess of pottage.

The going pottage-exchange equivalent nowadays is cheap DVD players, buy-one-get-one-free boot-cut jeans, a half-price Barbie dream house -- all available at a Wal-Mart near you, which, if the Bentonville boys get their way, will be nearer than you think.

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But that birthright they believe you Inglewood voters are willing to sell off for that discounted loot is your right to representative democracy.

Next Tuesday is election day in Inglewood. Between now and then, Wal-Mart will be filling Inglewood’s mailboxes with even more homey-looking, expensively produced political ads about the more and better shopping and dining that can be yours.

All you have to do is vote “yes” on 04-A, and you’ll get Wal-Mart’s “Home Stretch” project, 17 football fields’ worth of mercantile pleasures, right between the Forum and Hollywood Park.

You’ll also get a project that shreds the city’s laws and codes and then spits on the pieces -- a project built with no public hearings and no environmental study.

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So how about it, Inglewood? How much are you willing to pay to get low prices?

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This time, it isn’t about the virtues or the villainy of Wal-Mart -- world’s biggest retailer, shapes whole nations’ economic policies to its liking, blah blah blah.

It isn’t about the unions’ pitched battle against a company that undercuts union wages and benefits by half. (It’s a delish little counterpoint that the people hired to fan out across Inglewood to gather signatures to put this initiative on the ballot earned $12 an hour -- more than they’d get if they started working at Wal-Mart.)

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This time, it’s about Wal-Mart using the system to destroy the system -- setting democracy upon itself, like a dogfight. Oh, it’s a smart piece of business: Wal-Mart is batting its eyes and protesting, “But it’s direct democracy!” I’d call it a direct route to corpocracy -- rule by corporation.

Why shouldn’t Wal-Mart go straight to the voters, over the heads of a City Council that said “no” on Wal-Mart once? Fair question.

Recalls exist to get rid of politicians you disagree with (remember?), and initiatives exist to alter policies that the politicians are too timid to do themselves, like enacting smoking bans or campaign finance reforms -- or property tax limits.

But really, do you want initiatives on the ballot for technical matters? You hire city planners and zoning experts for the same reason you hire a doctor to take out your appendix or an electrician to wire your house -- you can’t do it yourself. Don’t give a voter like me control over engineering and zoning considerations. A sufficiently slick ad campaign might persuade me that red licorice is as good a building material as steel.

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This initiative is 71 pages long -- about the same number of pages in all six sections of yesterday’s newspaper. Have Inglewood’s voters read it? Have they even seen it? Are they ready to vote on the particulars of aquifer recharge and high emissivity characteristics, and how many Alnus cordata should be planted at the site? It’s all in the initiative.

I’ve read it and I don’t understand it all. What I did understand is that if it comes to Inglewood vs. Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart wins. “The Home Stretch Specific Plan shall ... preempt and replace all of the standards, criteria, procedures for review (including, without limitation, permit procedures) and other requirements of Chapter 12 of the Municipal Code.” As for construction plans, the city’s “reviewing official shall be required to issue the requested permit or permits, without the exercise of any discretion ... " -- a rubber stamp. One sentence is 129 words long, so I’ll summarize: pretty much any rule the city approves to make Wal-Mart do anything other than what it wants to do at Home Stretch is “null and void.” A political coup d’etat by corporation.

The day after this thing passes -- if it does -- you’ll see every corporation in the country trying the same thing: Hey, the oil companies will say -- let’s go to the voters to get rid of those burdensome fuel-quality regulations that make a tank of gasoline so expensive! (and incidentally keep your lungs from turning into rubber cement). Let’s go to the voters to be able to dump agricultural pesticides right back into the ground, so vegetables will be cheaper! (and incidentally give your kids three ears and eight fingers). If Wal-Mart can do it, so can we!

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It’s the hot-looking deals like this that turn out to be the fine-print killers: the ones that stick you with huge balloon payments or criminal interest penalties -- the ones that end up with someone handing over his soul.

Before you vote, and before you shop -- read the real price tag. Not just the low, low one on that big-screen TV.

Patt Morrison’s columns appear Mondays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is patt. morrison@latimes.com. Read previous columns at latimes. com/morrison.


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