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Independence of Wal-Mart surveyor questioned 

The Atascadero Chamber of Commerce is flaunting a recent survey as proof that there is “overwhelming” support from the business community to bring a Wal-Mart into town. But the results came from a company with ties to the controversial retail giant, and the Wal-Mart debate is heating up again in Atascadero.

The chamber paid $1,500 for a survey of local businesses, which was conducted by Los Angeles-based Cardinal Communication Strategies. Cardinal Communication Strategies is a subsidiary of Meridian Pacific, a public relations firm that has done work for Wal-Mart.

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John Peschong, one of the early partners in Meridian Pacific, is also a partner with Cardinal Communication Strategies. Peschong did not respond to a request for comment before press time.

Cardinal Communication Strategies President Debbie McCall said she would not answer any questions, when contacted by New Times.

When asked about a potential bias in the survey, chamber Executive Director Joanne Main did not respond specifically. She would only say, in an e-mail, that Cardinal Communication Strategies used another company, E Communications Advantage, to handle phone calls and draft the report.

Asked the same question, Atascadero Mayor Mike Brennler said he was aware of the link and “perhaps there’s a certain legitimacy to that concern.”

The chamber declared a win for Wal-Mart with 51 percent of responding businesses stating they wanted a Super Wal-Mart in Atascadero. The chamber mistakenly reported that 51 percent of 762 businesses surveyed were in favor of a Wal-Mart, but recently scaled back because only 446 businesses actually answered the question.

Main said, however, that the percentages are the same as in the first report. She said only the number of responding businesses was reported falsely.

Those survey results have been kept under tight wraps as neither the city manager, mayor, nor residents have been able to obtain a complete copy. Main declined to provide New Times with a copy for review.

In November, Atascadero voters will also cast their votes on Measure D-08, which would prohibit stores with more than 150,000 square feet of floor space. The Yes on Measure D-08 campaign recently filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission against the chamber. According to the complaint, the chamber violated its nonprofit status by paying for the survey and publishing it as evidence against Measure D-08 without first filing as a Political Action Committee.

The SLO County grand jury has also been contacted, Measure D-08 spokesperson Tom Comar told the Atascadero City Council on Sept. 23.

Wal-Mart supporters showed up in force at that meeting, accusing Measure D-08 supporters of slandering the chamber and using dirty politics to keep Wal-Mart out of the city.

The chamber’s quasi-public status with the city has made the Wal-Mart debate even more heated. Atascadero has funneled $170,325 of public money to the chamber for community promotion services since January 2006, according to the chamber. The chamber is contractually obligated to make annual reports, but glosses over details, critics say.

“From my perspective, I think they could improve and provide something with a little more depth,” Brennler said. “Naturally, when tax dollars are being utilized, then tax payers have a right to know where those dollars are being spent.”

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