By Loretta Kalb
Published: Friday, Dec. 12, 2008 | Page 8B
As the clock struck midnight, more than 100 people remained at a marathon Lodi City Council meeting on the future of a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter.

The council’s 3-2 vote – which was delivered after 1 a.m. Thursday – was actually on a narrow issue concerning an environmental document.

But the comments and questions of the gathered citizenry were anything but narrow. Instead, the Lodi discussion continued the classic, broad debate heard time and again: to have or not have a Wal-Mart.

Would a 216,710-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter in west Lodi hurt the community? Or help it? What about urban blight? How about sales tax potential?

Opponents typically share the same worries, that a Supercenter will drive other retailers out of business and that urban decay will follow.

Wal-Mart, in turn, has honed its response.

The retailer already has 35 Supercenters in California. Surveys show that the community business climate is strengthened with more tax revenue, jobs and resulting business licenses, the company said in a recent report on the Lodi question.

The City Council initially approved the environmental impact report in February 2005. But later that year, a San Joaquin Superior Court judge rejected the report as deficient.

The city Planning Commission rejected 5-1 the revised document for both the Supercenter and the 36-acre Lodi Shopping Center that would house it.

The council’s action Thursday allows the project to proceed with hope that it will survive court scrutiny.

The Lodi crowd – some of whom endured nearly seven hours of discussion, testimony and presentations – exceeded the 150-person limit in the Carnegie Forum. So doors were locked to dozens of people on the outside to honor a fire marshal’s mandate.

Some stalwarts, listening to the exterior audio system, waited in the night chill for hours for seating to open.

Those who spoke were fervent opponents, or passionate supporters.

“Because of them, I still own a house,” Julie Parker, a single mother of three, said of her Wal-Mart employer. No matter, she said, that she happened to be “on the clock” during the meeting.

Lodi resident Ann Cerney, a spokeswoman for the opposition group, Citizens for Open Government, was likewise adamant. Her group was one of two that in 2005 successfully challenged the City Council’s previous decision on the environmental document.

After waiting outside nearly two hours, she gave up and went home. So did others.

Later she returned, hearing that some seats had vacated. She testified after 11 p.m., chastising the council for keeping people outside.

The process, she said later, “raised a serious constitutional issue.”

“I thought it was pretty egregious,” Cerney said.

Brett Jolley, a Stockton land-use attorney representing the Supercenter opponents group, Lodi First, agreed.

“December 10 will go down as the night in history that Lodi trampled the U.S. Constitution,” Jolley told The Bee. “They locked the citizens out of the governmental process.”

Next up in Lodi will be the Planning Commission decision on a use permit and other requirements.

That won’t be the end of it, Jolley said, adding that a San Joaquin County judge has to sign off on the final decision.