Politics & Government

Local political leaders reject SLO mayor’s ‘call for a boycott’ of Amazon

Three local mayors and a county supervisor have spoken out to defend Amazon’s presence in San Luis Obispo County on the heels of SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon’s comments about the e-commerce giant negatively impacting local economies.

Arroyo Grande Mayor Caren Ray Russom, Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin and Morro Bay Mayor John Headding, along with county Supervisor Lynn Compton, each spoke to The Tribune, saying they won’t discourage local businesses and shoppers from using Amazon.

Harmon posted on Twitter and issued a statement saying that Amazon is “destroying our downtowns and having a negative impact on our communities,” adding she was quitting as a consumer, also calling upon other mayors and the public to join her in shopping locally.

“Mayors, in particular, have a bigger responsibility than most to ensure the economic viability of their community, and Amazon is implicitly detrimental to that mission,” Harmon said in her statement, cited in a Feb. 21 Tribune article. “I am personally leaving Amazon and will instead do my best to shop as locally as possible.”

Ray Russom and Compton, who ran against each other in the 2014 county supervisor election and now both represent South County communities, issued a joint statement to The Tribune on the Amazon discussion, expressing their disagreement with Harmon’s approach.

“We feel it’s important to respond together to Mayor Harmon’s call for a boycott,” they wrote. “We understand her desire to protect traditional retail businesses. However, we strongly believe it is possible for the communities we represent to support a diverse array of businesses which include brick and mortar retail and those that operate primarily online sales.”

Compton, who said she wasn’t speaking on the county board’s behalf, added: “Internet commerce is here to stay, so how can we work together with companies such as Amazon for mutual benefit?”

Speaking individually, Ray Russom added that city revenues depend on businesses of all kinds, including those that conduct e-commerce, choose to locate in the community, “and we are grateful for their investment.”

They jointly encouraged “all forms of economic development, especially those that result in head of household positions. We want the community to know we are united on this.”

A branch Amazon office operates in San Luis Obispo, with about 130 employees.

Harmon has since sought to clarify her comments, noting in a Tribune Viewpoint article: “I recognize that my broad statement about ‘quitting’ Amazon doesn’t acknowledge the interconnection and diversity of our economy or the myriad of reasons why people make their shopping choices. ... For any frustration or hurt that caused to the members of our community, and neighbors who work at Amazon, I apologize.”

She added she never used the word “boycott” referenced in The Tribune’s headline and article.

Harmon added: “A boycott is meant to be punitive, but my call to shop local is about personal choices, not punishment. It is more important than ever that media is precise and honest in their quest to portray the facts as they share the stories of our communities. Language matters.”

In this Nov. 14, 2018 file photo, protesters hold up anti-Amazon signs during a coalition rally and press conference of elected officials, community organizations and unions opposing Amazon headquarters getting subsidies to locate in Long Island City, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File) Bebeto Matthews AP

Harmon publicly issued a Tweet on Feb. 5 to Stacy Mitchell, the co-director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Mitchell is an anti-monopoly advocate.

The tweet showed Harmon cutting up her Amazon Prime card and stated: “I am the Mayor of San Luis Obispo and am leaving Amazon as a customer and want to call on other Mayors to do the same. Wanted to get your feedback about how we might amplify this message.”

Headding told The Tribune that he doesn’t believe Amazon should be blamed for “the failure of business models.”

“I don’t personally blame Amazon for any failure of businesses in Morro Bay,” Headding said. “Online may be contributing to the cause. But a lot of our local retailers embrace online and use it to gain a significant percentage of their revenue.”

Headding said: “Our approach has been, ‘How can we help her businesses grow and expand? How can we help promote shopping locally as well?’”

Martin said he recognizes how online sales have skyrocketed, with other large companies emulating Amazon’s model, and that city officials have become well aware that “one of the effects of this will be that the traditional models of shopping will change.”

Martin also said that the League of California Cities is working to get more of the tax money collected through online sales to go to local communities, from which products are bought and sold.

“I do think that as individuals we should spend our money wisely,” he said.

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.