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.”