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Council Rejects Fair Trade Town Status for La Mesa, Calls It ‘Vague,’ ‘Meddling’

Only Mayor Madrid and Councilman Allan support resolution backing sale of certain products.

A La Mesa group’s effort to have the city designated the first “Fair Trade Town” in Southern California failed Tuesday night when the City Council voted 3-2 against such a resolution.

Proponents said the fair trade movement seeks to assure that Third World workers such as coffee growers, artisans and maquiladora employees are paid a “living wage” in humane conditions.

They insisted that La Mesa would be saddled with no financial obligations or limit its choice of vendors.

But only Mayor Art Madrid and Councilman Dave Allan supported the resolution. Council members Ernie Ewin, Ruth Sterling and Mark Arapostathis opposed it.

Nancy Ryan, a co-leader of the 12-member La Mesa Fair Trade Town steering committee, said afterward she was “very surprised” by the majority no vote. “We thought it would be at least three in favor.”

She said members of her family have lived here since 1948 and she thought approval of the resolution would bring national recognition to the city. San Francisco and Berkeley are among four cities in the state to have a fair trade title.

“It just seemed like a can-do situation that would help the city and help merchants and bring customers to La Mesa,” since retailers would be encouraged to promote their fair trade products, she said.

She stressed that the program is “totally voluntary.”

But after members of her committee spoke for the resolution, three people spoke against it, including Scott Alevy, president and CEO of the East County Chamber of Commerce.

“We believe that government should not be telling businesses what products to sell, and what products not to sell,” Alevy said.

Efforts like fair trade should market themselves  “without any interference—support or opposition—from the government,” he said.

Kristin Kjaero, a member of the La Mesa Environmental Sustainability Commission, joined Alevy in opposing the resolution.

A lifelong La Mesan and 2004 council candidate, Kjaero said: “When I go out shopping, I ... consciously look at labels. I try to buy American, because the economy is bad. I’ve watched friends and neighbors lose their jobs and lose their homes. And while I’m not disagreeing with what [fair trade advocates] say about social activism, my priority for social activism is the people who live here.

“I really have concerns when you are being asked to commit to buying products that don’t support our community.  … That’s the part that bothers me.”

Mayor Madrid responded: “This is just a recommendation. It’s still a free society.”

La Mesa’s Russell Buckley criticized the council for taking time on the fair trade issue, saying “You have more important fish to fry,” such as a “$31 million unfunded pension liability” faced by City Hall.

But he said the city shouldn’t be involved in steering shoppers toward certain products.

“That … decision should be left to each individual—without influence from Big Brother,” Buckley said. “You weren’t elected to tell us what to buy or who to buy it from.”

Later, former council candidate Patrick Dean countered what he called the “capitalist argument … [against] picking winners and losers” by saying:

“That’s not what it’s about. It’s about making it more transparent. If we’re going to have a strong capitalist system, people need to know more information about what they’re [buying], so the ‘invisible hand of the marketplace’ can work its magic.”

Madrid said: “The reality happens to be, right this nanosecond [and] technology being what it is, there is an app for your smart phone … where you can go to a store and see an item for a certain price. You can look at that app and see what that item sold for at every other store … and tell the manager you can buy this item for this price at [another store], and the guys says: Sold.”

So “don’t start blaming this council or the people who are there, who are suggesting that there’s a better quality of life that we can have. It’s not about our saying we’re going to tell you what to buy or what not to buy.”

Madrid said it’s all about choices—“you have the choice who to elect, who not to elect.”

He rejected the notion that people would be ostracized for not buying fair trade items. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

Councilwoman Sterling—who earlier noted that her part in putting the fair trade item on the agenda didn’t signal her support for it—proceeded to explain why she opposed the resolution.

“Your long-term social goals are very admirable,” she told the fair trade contingent, noting that she has bought coffee from fair trade sources in Africa and South America.

“But I think it’s outside the city’s primary area of responsibility. … [In recent years] our businesses in La Mesa have had an increase in sales tax—and now—to show preferential treatment to another kind of business, instead of those that are not fair-trade businesses—I think that’s a double hit on these people.

“We are trying to establish a fine business community and bring business into the community, and it is not up to this council, or this city, to say ‘this legal business’ is endorsed by a resolution and ‘this legal business’ is not endorsed by the city.”

She concluded: “We have no business meddling in this kind of social climate. It’s just not our purview to do this.”

Councilman Allan said he hadn’t heard anything that would preclude “anybody in the city of La Mesa to go buy what they want to buy. That’s not been said tonight. That’s all I’m going to say.”

And Councilman Arapostathis said only: “Why can’t there be fair trade products in the city without this resolution?”

Councilman Ewin—who later took time on the dais to read the official resolution after first quoting a generic model submitted for information purposes—asked: “What’s a livable wage”?

Ryan said it is determined within the region where the products are made by a third-party “certification agency”—not in New York or Washington, D.C.

“I’ve got a number of things in here that don’t make any sense,” Ewin said of the generic resolution.  He labeled as vague a reference to “the model of social responsibility.”

“I take my moral codes [as] personal,” Ewin said. “The bulk of my moral code is made up of the 12 points of the [Boy] Scout law that I learned at 11 and say every morning.”

Sean Purcell October 12, 2011 at 02:39 PM
This appears to be another example of people looking toward the government to involve itself where it has no basis or legal legitimacy; but it would have been informative to have a link to the Resolution itself for a better understanding.
Cynthia Zanone October 12, 2011 at 03:34 PM
As everything, it's a matter of perspective and several good arguments are presented here -- excepting Russell Buckley's "Big Brother" crack. Here's the URL for the La Mesa Fair Trade group's informative site: http://lamesafairtrade.blogspot.com/
Kevin George October 12, 2011 at 04:35 PM
At the meeting it seemed as if the big deal was to be the first City in SoCal to declare ourselves free to sell something that we are already free to sell. The question is " why should the City be involved at all?" The defense of the free trade issue was repeated many times, " we aren't telling anyone what to buy". They sounded as if in the current situation the City has the power to tell us what we can buy or sell. Did I miss something? They are free to sell anything they want, just as i am free to buy anything I want. So how would the passage of this "free trade" resolution effect anything except how people feel about themselves? Thank you to Russell Buckley for his stirring three minutes. And thank you to Ruth, Ernie and Dr A.
Russell Buckley October 12, 2011 at 06:13 PM
I think some of the people at last night's discussion lost sight of the primary issue -- whether or not La Mesa should adopt a resolution supporting the Fair Trade movement. No one objected to merchants carrying goods with the fair trade label or to any citizen deciding to buy or not based on the label. Contrary to what Patrick said, the public will be no less informed because the Council wisely decided to stay out of the business of endorsing certain producers over others. Based on some research, I have reservations about whether or not the fair trade movement achieves its well intended objectives. There is a lot of room for the law of unintended consequences to rear its ugly head when one starts trying advantage one group and disadvantage another the way that Fair Trade does. One of them is the point that was raised last night about favoring foreign producers over our own. But those are my opinions. I will make my choice about what to buy and I am happy to let others make theirs -- free from any attempt to use the weight of our government to persuade them. Make no mistake about it, those in the movement wanted the government endorsement to help persuade the public to buy their their products and therefore not buy others. Thanks to Thanks to Ruth, Ernie and Mark for voting to stay out of a matter where government doesn't belong.

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