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Preying on Small Towns

A fierce struggle since early last year over a proposed Chase Bank and CVS Pharmacy development that has been debated publicly in numerous meetings in small town Sebastopol may reach a climax at the July 17 and 19 City Council public hearing. The Council will either confirm previous decisions made by itself, the Design Review Board (DRB), and Planning Commission to reject the proposal at a downtown commons corner or allow it to go forward.

On one hand, there are the good, loyal friends of the Pellini family, which owns the corner, and some Rotarians supporting the proposal by focusing on the past and private property, both of which are important. A recent letter to the editor of a local weekly in this town of some 8000 people advocated this position regarding “the Pellini project,” as if this important issue were merely a personal matter, rather than a larger issue about Sebastopol’s small town character in northern California.

The development’s opposition focuses on Sebastopol’s future, the consequences of what ends up on that key corner, and the bigger picture beyond any one family and its friends. Chase, the U.S.’s largest bank, and its frequent partner, CVS, the U.S.’s 18th largest corporation, anchoring the center of our small town would threaten local businesses, including credit unions and local banks.

The Chase/CVS development has been appropriately rejected numerous times by the DRB, the Planning Commission, and the City Council, for many valid reasons. Yet the millionaire managers of these two greedy Goliaths keep using their power to get the only thing they want—extracting more money from Sebastopudlians and our natural resources. GoLocal needs to be more than a slogan; it should be practiced.

The evening City Council meetings on Chase/CVS have moved to the large Sebastopol Community Center for what is expected to be a show down. Opponents, who seem to be in the majority, will demonstrate on Friday, July 13, from 3 to 6 p.m. at the corner of Highways 12 and 116, the site of the intended development, in an action initiated by Occupy Sebastopol.

What is happening in Sebastopol with this development also is occurring elsewhere in the United States. Though the U.S. economy is faltering, Wall Street banks and corporations are making record profits and paying their CEO’s millions of dollars. The phrase “Banks got bailed out. We got sold out” is accurate. If Sebastopol residents defeat Chase/CVS in this one small town, it could be a message to such 1% corporations seeking to further concentrate their wealth that small Davids can defeat their Goliath power.

I love Sebastopol and its people, in spite of our differences. Chase/CVS do not care about us. They have plundered people around the globe for a long time and paid millions of dollars in penalties.

JP Morgan/Chase received $94.7 billion in bail-out funds, of which $64 billion is still on the backs of tax payers. Chase is among the leaders in home foreclosures and is under investigation by the New York State Attorney General over allegations of its fraudulent foreclosure practices. They are under investigation by the FBI and SEC regarding their recent loss of more than 9 billion dollars in London.

CVS has paid almost half a billion dollars to settle various lawsuits and fines, ranging from illegal labor practices and deceptive business practices, to racketeering, corruption, and the mishandling of toxic wastes.

Chase CEO Jamie Dimon reported to Congress in June that his bank lost $2 billion dollars in the kind of derivative gambling that crashed the American economy. He now admits that it was over $9 billion. Ignorance or malice? Is this the kind of boss we want anchoring our downtown?

Law-makers, including City Council members, should not do what law-breakers want, like Chase/CVS, just because they are powerful. They buy lobbyists, politicians, lawyers, and even U.S. Supreme Court justices. It is time for our small town David to bravely stand up to these mighty Goliaths and be a model for other communities and local businesses threatened by them.

Sebastopol’s next election for City Council is already being influenced by the Chase/CVS proposal. Two seats will be up for the vote on Nov. 6. Two of the current candidates seem to favor Chase/CVS, where two oppose it. So whatever happens in the next week is likely to linger into the City Council elections and influence what that body might decide. Opponents of the development have already submitted one law suit, saying that the development should prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

Last week’s letter in a local weekly wonders “what is best for the community.” It is certainly not to ignore the damage Chase/CVS have done to people, their homes and health. These loan sharks and drug-dealers, which is what they really are, leave trails of misery.

“Rules and regulations…guidelines” concern the letter writers. Perhaps it is because I am a seminary-trained, ordained United Methodist minister that I believe that laws should be based on ethics and morality and protecting people from harm.

The multiple criminal failures of CVS to clean up its toxic wastes and Chase’s predatory banking practices reveal their lack of ethics and morality. Allowing Chase/CVS to anchor our downtown would be a bargain with the devil, which would put our small town’s soul at risk.

I favored the Northeast Area Proposal a few years ago, but through direct democracy, it was defeated. Instead, in that space we now have the Barlow Project, which is genuinely local. Waiting turned out to be best. Let us be patient and strengthen that Eastern entrance to Sebastopol, rather than weaken it with drive-throughs that would clog our downtown with more cars, thus making pedestrian, bicycle, and emergency vehicle movement more difficult.

Something nice at that busy corner would be good. But “nice” and Chase/CVS do not mix. Let’s encourage our current City representatives to be patient until a better, ethical offer comes along. Otherwise, we could be in a long-term relationship with convicted white-collar criminals. Let us not sell an important part of our downtown commons to the highest outside bidder just because they have big bucks. Who knows what other corporate criminals might follow?

We would not allow a crack house or sexual predator to anchor our downtown. Nor should we allow Chase/CVS to do so, for they would be more harmful. Consider the bigger picture and the future of our beloved small town and its soul.

Meanwhile, Chase is one of the banks too big NOT to fall. Let us not go down with it.

Shepherd Bliss farms in Sebastopol, teaches college, and can be reached at 3sb@comcast.net.

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Shepherd Bliss teaches college part time, farms, and has contributed to two-dozen books. He can be reached at: 3sb@comcast.net.

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