The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Commentary October 14, 2005

Wal-Mart rep. responds, other letters

To the Editors:

I’m writing in response to your recent coverage of Wal-Mart’s plans to build a store in Oberlin. I want to set the record straight about our work with the Planning Commission, Design Review Committee and Oberlin City Council.

Wal-Mart has worked extensively with the city of Oberlin to develop this site for more than a year. Opponents have suggested we are not working within the democratic process. Like a lot of their arguments, this is simply false.

A recent letter to the editor also suggested that Wal-Mart had somehow obtained approval by threatening lawsuits. Given the facts of the situation in Oberlin, this allegation is beyond outrageous. In fact, just the opposite is true — our project has been delayed by frivolous actions and threats of lawsuits by the opposition who have tied up the process and wasted taxpayers’ money on legal fees battling with their reprehensible tactics.

The letter writer may be confusing Wal-Mart’s actions with those of a group calling itself Oberlin Citizens for Responsible Development. This group hired an attorney who did not participate in most of the public hearings, then began filing frivolous actions to try to overturn the city’s decisions. Fortunately, the Court agreed and dismissed the lawsuit. This is the same attorney, by the way, who challenged two members of council, resulting in one’s resignation and the other’s absence from the ballot. And the letter writer calls Wal-Mart a bully!

The city’s approval process has never been a secret, as some have claimed. Wal-Mart submitted a preliminary site plan to the Planning Commission in February 2004. We participated in several public hearings, and even held a special open forum with residents to discuss the site plan. We made numerous changes to our original proposal to incorporate residents’ suggestions and many of the city’s new design guidelines — something we were not obligated to do, as our plans were submitted well before these guidelines were adopted. Wal-Mart went so far as to take out full-page ads in the local newspaper encouraging members of the community to participate in the public hearings. We did this because we wanted an open dialogue with Oberlin residents.

I also would like to refute several of the statements in the article about a proposed living wage ordinance. As one of the world’s most visible companies, Wal-Mart expects attention and criticism. When the criticism is warranted, we use it was a tool to improve the way we operate. But, when special interest groups and critics spread misinformation about Wal-Mart, the public deserves to hear the truth.

The truth is Wal-Mart provides value for customers, opportunities for our workforce, economic support for communities and a helping hand for charities across America.

Wal-Mart provides good jobs with excellent advancement opportunities to our more than 1.2 million U.S. associates. We bring good jobs to people who need them — jobs with competitive wages, benefits and career opportunities. It is not uncommon to have thousands of people standing in line to apply for a job when we open a new facility. This tells us that they want our jobs and that we fulfill a need — whether that be a career opportunity, a move up on the economic ladder or whatever.

Today, the majority of Wal-Mart’s hourly store associates in the United States work full-time, unlike many other retailers who employ part-time workers. A typical new Wal-Mart Supercenter — like the one to be built in Oberlin — will create about 350 jobs paying a competitive wage. In Ohio, the average wage for regular full-time hourly associates is $9.46 per hour, almost twice the federal minimum wage. Your story claims this rate is $2.60 lower than the national retail average, which is not true. According to the National Retail Federation, the national average is $9.77 — and that includes parts of the country where the cost of living is significantly higher than it is in Northeast Ohio.

There are many other inaccuracies in your story. I’d like to address two of the more serious charges — about health care benefits and discrimination.

Wal-Mart provides affordable health care insurance. And we offer something that many other plans do not — unlimited coverage of expenses after one year on the plan. Wal-Mart provides health care insurance to more than 948,000 Americans, including 568,000 associates.

Wal-Mart does not tolerate discrimination of any kind. While it’s true that we have been named in lawsuits, Wal-Mart disputes the allegations. Wal-Mart is a great place for women to work, and isolated complaints that arise from our 3,600 U.S. stores do not change this fact. There are hundreds of thousands of women who have wonderful stories to tell about what our company has meant to them.

Wal-Mart is a good neighbor through economic support and charitable giving. A Wal-Mart facility provides hundreds of jobs and supports communities financially through sales tax revenue, property taxes and community giving. We look forward to serving our many loyal customers in Oberlin.

– Philip Serghini
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

To the Editors:

I would like to address two issues: first, the involvement of Jerry Phillips in Oberlin politics and second, the Living Wage initiative that Mr. Phillips has put on our November ballot.

Mr. Phillips has been hired by the Oberlin Citizens for Responsible Development. In that capacity, he has filed multiple lawsuits against the city. In my view, these lawsuits were baseless and frivolous. So far, the Ohio courts agree with me. But Mr. Phillips is a poor loser. He is quoted in the last Review implying that the city council has been “bought” by pro-Wal-Mart interests. This sleazy insinuation has no basis in fact. As a lawyer, Mr. Phillips ought to refrain from making baseless and destructive accusations against city officials (indeed, unless he is working pro bono, the only person in this matter who has been “bought” is Jerry Phillips himself). His actions in this situation have been haphazard, reckless, and harmful, and I urge the OCRD to reconsider their relationship with him.

In any case, Mr. Phillips has introduced a Living Wage initiative to the upcoming Oberlin City election. Although I generally favor Living Wage legislation, I plan to vote against this initiative. Allow me to explain why.

First, the initiative will be bad for Oberlin community workers and, if challenged, will probably be found unconstitutional. The initiative contains a provision that high school and college students who are under the age of 23 will not be subject to the wage supports in the ordinance. In practical terms, this means that local employers will have a choice every time they need to hire someone: If they hire an adult resident, they will have to pay him/her at least $10.50 an hour. If they hire a college student, they can pay him/her considerably less — say, $8 an hour. This “Living Wage” initiative will make it harder for local adults, working men and women with families to support, to obtain jobs. That will be bad for the city of Oberlin. I believe, further, that if an older adult loses a job to a college student as a result of this law, s/he could sue the city for age discrimination.

Second, a simple matter of fairness. The Living Wage initiative exempts Oberlin College from its provisions. Do we really want to pass legislation designed to insure that everyone in town is paid fairly, and then exempt the largest employer in town?

Third, the initiative will have no effect on Wal-Mart, its intended target. The provision is written so that only companies that have significant financial contracts with the city are affected. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, will have no need to enter into such contracts with the city, and their wages will, as a result, be as low here as they are everywhere in Wal-Martland.

Finally, I am concerned about the effects that this provision would have on future development in Oberlin. One business that would be affected is East College Street Project — an ecological, community-friendly development downtown being run and funded by three idealistic Oberlin College graduates. This provision would penalize the kind of businesses that we are trying to attract to Oberlin, making it less likely that they will come here.

Why did the Oberlin Citizens for Responsible Development (OCRD) write the provision in this way? You would have to ask Jerry Phillips, the lawyer who put together the initiative. As with much of his work against Wal-Mart, the Living Wage initiative is legally unsound and ultimately bad for the city. I urge Oberlin citizens, including Oberlin College students, to vote it down.

– Kirk Ormand
Associate Professor of Classics

To the Editors:

I face a predicament in the upcoming election. As a member of a union (OCOPE), I find the hiring practices of Wal-Mart abominable, but as a 20+ year resident of the city of Oberlin, I find the activities of the OCRD almost equally despicable.

Wal-Mart is coming to Rte. 58, a parcel of land that has already been zoned commercial. How can Oberlin legally prevent it from coming? Even if Oberlin could prevent Wal-Mart from building there, what good would it do the city? Wal-Mart already has a store less than ten miles away and is planning to build two more within a similar distance. The only thing Oberlin will do by preventing the store from building on Rte. 58 is to keep much needed tax money out of the city.

The concept of a living wage, though admirable, is delusional. And in this case, it is directed especially at Wal-Mart, even though OCRD may deny it. Does anyone really think that Wal-Mart will not hire a high school or college student to avoid the higher wages it would have to pay someone with a family? How would this improve the unemployment rate in the city? The Wal-Mart debate presents a class issue in American society. The intellectual elite oppose it for philosophical reasons, but the lower classes embrace Wal-Mart for practical reasons: they maybe can get a job there that they may not be able to find anywhere else, and they can afford the merchandise. The only way a living wage is going to be workable is if it is applied universally as a minimum wage.

It would be good for The Oberlin Review at some point before the election to present the other side of the issue. College students’ votes are a valuable part of the civic process in Oberlin, but if students are not well informed of all sides of the issues, their votes are not helping the city.

– Ellen F. Broadwell
Library Technician

To the Editors:

The Oberlin Review’s dyspeptic, discombobulated diatribe on the Wal-Mart imbroglio is reminiscent of Congressman William Hungate’s withering depiction of the Watergate perpetrators’ myopia: “If an elephant tramped into the hearing room the ringleaders would declare: ‘Hell, that’s not a pachyderm. It’s a mouse with a glandular condition.’”

You shouldn’t look a gift-horse in the mouth but The Oberlin Review’s the reason they invented glue factories. Fabricated quotes and concocted antics are the indelible unedifying earmarks of an invidious, anemic, adolescent organ. When prolific novelist and retired spy E. Howard Hunt altered the Kennedy State Department Diem cables in 1971, perhaps he aspired to adorn the staff marquee of a future Oberlin Review.

The following remarks, delivered at the July 18 and July 21, 2005 Oberlin city council and Oberlin Planning Board meetings, may illuminate a seminal issue in Oberlin Citizens for Responsible Development’s case before the Ohio ninth District Court of Appeals:

The Oberlin Planning Board’s surreptitious, capricious, precipitous and pernicious abandonment of an official audio recording system is a flagrant flout of the tenets of transparent, equitable and accountable government. The Planning Board adopted an autistic stance in the wake of an Oberlin Municipal Court whistleblower subpoena of the Planning Board’s staff director, chair and relevant mini-cassette tapes.

To paraphrase polemicist Norman Podhoretz, “Everybody has the right to be stupid, but the Oberlin Planning Board abuses the privilege.” The Board’s unilateral, unequivocal, unorthodox decision to deprive the public of verbatim archive is myopic, insipid and legally unsupportable. It smacks of Boss Tweed’s tortured Tammany Hall etiquette. As Mark Twain sardonically characterized the disingenuous shenanigans of a Gilded Age speculator, “He has such a great respect for the truth that he uses it sparingly.”

The Delphic oracle of self-delusion can be intoxicating. In Robert Caro’s classic tome, The Power Broker, the hubris and arrogance of unbridled power evinced by former New York City Parks Commissioner and Triborough Bridge Authority Chairman Robert Moses is memorialized in the chortled, self-aggrandizing moniker, “Nothing he has ever done has been tainted by legality.”

32 years ago this week White House aide Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of President Nixon’s secret taping apparatus. If RMN had heeded the sage advice of Treasury Secretary John Connolly and the retrospective counsel of attorney Leonard Garment, Irish Setter King Timahoe would have, on cue, ignited a bonfire of profanities on the South Lawn. In the unvarnished words of former Procter and Gamble ad pitchman and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, “Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s awfully hard to get it back in.”

Oberlin pays prodigious, pretentious lip service to the unfettered exchange of ideas, but the template is often honored in the breach. The Oberlin Planning Board would like an anesthetized, emasculated public to emulate the early Woody Allen’s credulous, neurotic, caricatured girlfriend whose favorite form of recreation was listening to Marcel Marceau LP’s. The Planning Board needs a collective cochlear implant, not a mute white noise rendition of Rose Mary Woods’ greatest hits.

–Mark Chesler
OCRD member

To the Editors:

Having read Bob Piron’s letter to the Review, which I did not like, I am reminded vaguely of the insensitivity and bombast that characterized my letter to the Review, or, at least, manifested itself at certain points in the letter. Rather than to respond to Mr. Piron, I would like to make an apology to the Review.

I do not consider their reporting objectively “bad journalism” or “biased.” In fact, I must say that it contained a particularly good turn of phrase here and there, regardless of content, and was generally well-written throughout. Yet I wrote a rather disparaging letter (in parts) and perhaps, I was using aggressive criticism more as means for amplifying our cause (OCRD) than for actually advising the Review. Certainly we did not get the coverage we wanted, but I understand that the Review regards the city council persons, whose words dominated the article, as evenhanded arbiters deciding whether it was best for the town to have a Wal-Mart, or, more pointedly, assessing what were the town’s given options in such a predicament.

Whereas the OCRD, having been involved in a lawsuit against the council, tended to see them as opposition. Not merely Bob Piron’s letter, or my letter, but also the little spat that broke out at the panel discussion, which was otherwise enriching, caused me to conclude that various players have become frivolously antagonistic of one another in the public forum. The tone should change (starting with myself.)

Also, in response to Kirk Ormand’s letter, I will concede that Dan Gardner has not been unequivocally pro-Wal-Mart (in correction of my last letter) though we do not feel that all possible measures have been taken (by city government) to restrain Wal-Mart and have been pursuing those measures ourselves. Wal-Mart is by no means a done deal. They don’t even formally own land on which they intend to build.

Even now there is a lot of confusion, clearly, about the facts — I would encourage you to address your questions to CanSam at We will continue to spread information and forward the cause.

Lastly, I would like to plug the next Wal-Mart Living Wage panel which will happen in the vicinity of Nov. 3, featuring graduate David Porter, OC ’61, professor of political science at SUNY/Empire State College (ret.) and co-author of Megamall on the Hudson: Planning,Wal-Mart and Grassroots Resistance.

–Edward Livingston
College sophomore

To the Editors:

I’d like to extend an open invitation to any and all students, faculty and staff who are interested in planning or collaborating with World AIDS Day this year. The international theme is “Stop AIDS. Keep the Promise.” — which focuses on pressuring governments to fulfill obligations for AIDS research, funding and relief efforts. Should this be Oberlin’s theme as well? Have awesome ideas for speakers/events /posters for World AIDS Day? World AIDS Day has always been a collaborative effort between many different campus organizations and offices.

Whether you’ve joined us before or if this is the first time you’ve heard of World AIDS Day, we’d love to have your help. It’s all happening Dec. 1, so if you’re interested, please e-mail me at today.

–Krissy Ferris
Student Sexual Health Education Coordinator
College junior

To the Editors:

Apparently, the elephant’s memory may not be as sharp as we once thought. Posters advertising a talk by former FBI agent Gary Aldrich proclaim, “A Nationally Recognized Conservative Speaker on Campus? We know it seems like a first, but it’s only the beginning.” The OC Republicans, it seems, have already forgotten that David Brooks spoke here twice in 2004. Being a sophomore, I was only around for the second of these two talks: his September Convocation lecture.

The Convocation series “presents free, public discussions...under the auspices of the Finney Lecture Committee and the Office of the President” (I quote from the Convocation 2005-2006 website). One of the country’s most influential conservative journalists, then, was brought here not by a group with a political agenda, but by a nonpartisan committee trying to spark interest and discussion around the whole campus, including its conservative corners.

I don’t mean to imply that being a conservative on the Oberlin campus is a pleasant experience (I certainly wouldn’t want to try it), but suggesting that the Oberlin community has shown no prior interest in conservative viewpoints is dishonest, and does not encourage further overtures toward the school’s political minority. We have no shortage of issues in need of funding; if the OC Republicans believe they are the only group sponsoring conservative speakers, perhaps we should allow them to be.

–Sam Lasser
College sophomore


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