During the past week, I’ve discovered the Walmart vote by the Burbank City Council last month is still on the minds of a lot of folks. Monday at the Burbank Coordinating Council meeting, keynote speaker, Mayor Jess Talamantes, cheerfully reminded the audience of the 4-to-1 council vote in favor of allowing Walmart to move forward without restrictions or delays in its plans for The Great Indoors site at the Empire Center. Mayor Talamantes said, “They’re going to be issued permits to do what they need to do… to the interior.”
Apparently the 143,000 square foot building is set to be converted into a Walmart superstore and, according to Talamantes, there’s “… a lot of parking available…” at the Empire Center for the hordes of shoppers it’s expected to attract. The mayor may be bubbling over with delight about Walmart’s pending arrival in Burbank, but many residents remain opposed to it and have deep suspicions about the Walmart vote at the February 21 city council meeting.
Several Walmart critics spoke out at the February 28 city council meeting about the strange coincidence of media reports on the council’s decision appearing hours before it occurred. A report on KTLA at 10 p.m. was mentioned by the critics as an example that something was fishy or corrupt about that vote. City council members denied the vote was fixed.
During council and staff response to public comments at the February 28 meeting, City Manager, Mike Flad admitted someone in his office spoke to the media that night: “Deputy City Manager (Joy) Forbes talked with a reporter at 7 o’clock… and advised him of what the staff recommendation was going to be on that item. Told the reporter it’s up to the council. The council’s not made a decision. He asked if he could be contacted if the decision of the council differed from the staff’s recommendation. Obviously he reported back on that before item had been discussed by the council.”
On Thursday, March first I e-mailed Flad asking for the name of the reporter. Deputy City Manager Joy Forbes sent me the following response: “It was Juan Fernandez from CBS 2 news.” CBS 2 has a news broadcast at 11 p.m., however, it frequently shares resources and reporters with KCAL 9 as part of a duopoly. KCAL has a 10 p.m. newscast.
The Walmart opponents cited a KTLA report at 10 p.m. That suggests other city staffers spoke with reporters as well. Assistant Community Development Director/City Planner Michael Forbes confirmed this in an e-mail to me on March first: “Community Development Director Greg Herrmann and Principal Planner Patrick Prescott spoke with reporters several times before and after the Council meetings on January 31 and February 21 when Walmart was discussed. Mark Kellam was the reporter from the Leader. Patrick also spoke with a reporter from ABC 7 news but he does not remember their name. Patrick also gave an interview for KTLA 5 news but there was no reporter; he was just asked questions by the camera operator. All information that staff provided to reporters is the same as the information that appeared in the Council staff reports on January 31 and February 21 and was presented verbally to the Council on those dates.”
So there’s a good chance some of the reporters and news outlets covering the Walmart controversy/council vote used city staffers as news sources. Some have suggested the early reports of the city council’s decision on Walmart were the result of “lazy reporters” guessing or not doing their due diligence as journalists. However, if these reporters gathered strong information on how the city council would vote from city hall sources and used that as the basis of their reports — they cannot be faulted for getting the story right. Some would say they deserve kudos and a few high-fives.
Bottom line, the city council needs to step up and launch an investigation to determine what information got passed on to the media and whether that information led directly to those early reports on the city council Walmart vote. Clear the air and the cloud of suspicion hanging over the city council’s Walmart vote. Burbankers need to have confidence in the process — whether they agree with the outcome or not.