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Wal-Mart in Jefferson

This statement was sent by Brent Denzin, a Madison attorney.

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Blinded by Big-Box:
How the City of Jefferson is Denying the Public Access to Information on Wal-Mart

Opinion Editorial by Brent O. Denzin, Attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow

Midwest Environmental Advocates

On Tuesday night, the City of Jefferson Common Council sent a clear message to citizens in Jefferson: You have no right to participate in the City’s decisions regarding Wal-Mart.

In light of an unsettling political environment, including false charges against a former-Alderman, and endless pressure by the world’s most powerful corporation, Wal-Mart, citizens in Jefferson are attempting to exercise their basic right to join the decision-making process.

Through proposed direct legislation, citizens have requested that the Common Council require studies to review the environmental, economic and social impacts of all large annexation decisions before they annex large parcels of land for big-box stores. The proposed legislation only requires the Council to gather information. It does not limit the Council’s power to accept proposed annexation petitions once the studies are reviewed, nor does it require the Council to violate any existing ordinance or state law.

As required by state law, the Common Council must either approve the measure or pass it on to the voters as referendum. Perhaps feeling that additional information would threaten what appears to be a done deal, the Council voted 8-0 to do neither. Even worse, Alderman Bob Coffman filled the media with factually deceptive and legally inaccurate statements supporting their decision.

In the rush to flood the city with below-poverty level jobs and place the city’s economy in a box, the Jefferson Common Council has forgotten that their authority has limits. Whether citizens believe that Wal-Marts will save or destroy their community, their right to directly participate in government does not end on Election Day. Direct legislation is at the root of our political system, and helped cities like Jefferson mold their community into what it is today. Jefferson has never been, and should not be, a product of eight uninformed individuals.

While the whole process has been dirty, at best, the latest decision in Jefferson crosses the line. The Council’s recent actions should not be considered yet another issue in a deep debate about our changing economic and environmental landscape. The reaction should be clear and definite: These actions are not only unwise, irresponsible and undemocratic, they are illegal and unacceptable.

More importantly, this abuse of power takes place in light of the most benign and unbiased proposals. Citizens in Jefferson would not be not voting to ban Wal-Mart or support one view of Wal-Mart at the expense of another. The proposed legislation asks the Council to take a few extra months to educate themselves on the potential costs and benefits of annexation. What is Wal-Mart’s impact on other small cities in Wisconsin? Is this type of growth sustainable? The proposed studies will help answer these questions. Annexation decisions alter the course of Jefferson’s future and citizens have the right to make sure the decision is informed.

If the Council would have allowed the citizens to exercise their statutory right to participate, citizens could have voted to formalize a process for future decisions that will let everyone rest easier, knowing that these large decisions are made in an informed, open manner. Despite what Alderman Coffman suggests, the studies will not cost the city a dime and the Council has every right to install this type of review process. The legislation is clearly legal and clearly important.

Wal-Mart does not own Wisconsin, and should not be allowed to colonize our city councils through political interference and misinformation. The most basic protection citizens still have is their ability to set parameters for all development decisions and expect that representatives will actually “represent” the community’s vision. Citizens across Wisconsin should appreciate and protect this right and actively respond to any local government that loses sight of the law.

Brent Denzin is an attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow with Midwest Environmental Advocates, Wisconsin’s first and only nonprofit environmental law center that provides technical assistance and legal representation to communities working for clean air, clean water, and clean government. He can be reached at or (608) 251-5047 ext. 1.  To learn more, visit