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Court Case, Recall Campaign Mar Meijer

January 12, 2008 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Although Meijer Inc. often touts what it says is its strong community involvement when the company asks local officials for permission to build a store in their town, facts that emerged during a recent court case elsewhere in Michigan have cast a cloud over the company’s claim.

Several weeks ago, the Traverse City Record Eagle reported that Meijer secretly and perhaps illegally organized and then bankrolled a campaign to recall Acme Township officials who voted to oppose or modify the company’s proposed store there.

Ironically, the story about the unsuccessful recall campaign was uncovered because Meijer had sued some of the same officials as private citizens for their opposition.

The controversy began in 2005, when Meijer sued several Acme Township officials, including township trustee William Boltres, over their resistance to the store. Meijer claimed Mr. Boltres had a conflict of interest because he was a member of Concerned Citizens of Acme Township, a citizen group that opposed the Meijer project.

But Mr. Boltres countersued Meijer, claiming that he was never a member of the citizen group and that the company was trying to punish him for his position. The legal clash led to arbitration; the arbitration board sided with Mr. Boltres; Meijer has now been ordered to pay him $3 million in damages.

During the proceedings, however, another damaging allegation emerged: Meijer had organized and bankrolled the recall campaign against Mr. Boltres and other township officials, but never publicly disclosed that fact—a potentially serious crime.

"We got the recall campaign election billings," Mr. Boltres’ attorney, Grant Parsons, told the newspaper, "and it showed they hired a public relations firm and spent $10,000 to write letters to editor, to write forum articles, to write the recall petition language, and to do campaign literature.

"It absolutely polarized the community," Mr. Parsons added. "It has destroyed any hope of compromise and any hope of democratic process. We now have people in Acme who are damned near at each others throats over this."

Caught red-handed, Meijer acknowledged that it financed the recall campaign. The Record-Eagle reports that the state attorney general is investigating whether that was a felony violation of state law, which prohibits corporations from donating to political campaigns.

It also emerged during the legal jousting that the kind of litigation Meijer tried against Mr. Boltres is not unusual for the big company. When attorney Parsons asked Meijer’s lawyers to list all lawsuits the company filed against local government or agencies in recent years, they produced a list of seven—all against townships, villages, or government agencies that, like many individuals, are no match for the company’s deep pockets.

Neither discovery seemed to surprise Mr. Boltres, who observed that the retailer "is known in the State of Michigan as a company that will resort to bullying tactics and retaliation against citizens who oppose Meijer big-box development."

Meijer did not respond to repeated requests by Great Lakes Bulletin News Service for comment on its legal and electoral tactics in Acme Township. —G.P.

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