When the Las Vegas Planning Commission approved a permit for Walmart to sell package liquor in his neighborhood, Martin Dean Dupalo sought an appeal to the City Council.
He planned to show the council photos of damage to walls, houses and cars in the neighborhood he attributed to drunken drivers.
It was a tactic he used successfully in 2008 to persuade the council to unanimously reject Walmart’s package liquor application at the same location despite Planning Commission approval.
But Dupalo’s plan got stopped before it even started when he found out such an appeal would cost him $750, a requirement he hadn’t faced five years ago.
“For me it is a poll tax,” said Dupalo, a political science teacher. “If I want to have a say as a citizen, then I have to pay $750.”
The fee covers the cost of sending notification postcards to property owners within 1,500 feet of the Walmart at 201 N. Nellis Blvd., a requirement for liquor permits.
It didn’t come into play the first time Dupalo opposed the permit because that was before a 2010 ordinance change that gave the Planning Commission final say over certain decisions, barring an appeal.
In 2008, a special use application like the one Walmart was seeking automatically went before the council after a Planning Commission vote.
The change was an effort to streamline city government but, some say, in instances like the Walmart decision, it makes it prohibitive for non-wealthy people to take their case to the City Council.
The $750 fee represents about 75 percent of the median weekly household income in Las Vegas.
“Ultimately the government has an obligation to be reasonable and not create obstacles to access,” said Staci Pratt, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. “That is a significant amount of money.”
Geoffrey Pallay, director of research at the Lucy Burns Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that promotes education about local government, said the notification fee reminded him of instances in which governments charge citizens high fees to access information.
“Government is funded by the citizenry, so limiting access via exorbitant costs goes against the notion of an open and transparent government,” Pallay said.
Others defended the fee, saying it was necessary to protect taxpayers as a whole from bearing the cost of government activities done at the behest of the few.
“You either support that cost through taxes or the direct cost of those who are affected,” said Flinn Fagg, the city’s planning director.
There are other avenues for someone like Dupalo to be heard without paying a fee. He could speak during a public comment period at a council meeting, but that period is reserved for items that aren’t on the agenda, and speakers are limited to one minute each.
Another option would be to persuade his council member to request the item be placed on an agenda.
But Councilman Bob Coffin said there is no reason to bring the item forward because he is satisfied with the Planning Commission decision.
Coffin said Dupalo is alone in his objection and doesn’t represent any broader sentiment in the neighborhood.
“That is usually reserved for cases where you have broad neighborhood resistance,” Coffin said. “Here it is only the one guy.”
Coffin’s position on the issue is different from former Councilman Gary Reese, who represented the area in 2008 and led the way in rejecting the Walmart application.
“We always have to look at ... the integrity of the neighborhood,” Reese said at the time. “I really feel like at this time we do have oversaturation of alcohol in this location.”
Representatives from Walmart, who still need a license to sell package liquor in addition to the use permit that already is approved, disagree with Dupalo’s suggestion that alcohol sales would diminish the neighborhood.
“Our policies prohibiting underage sales and sales to intoxicated persons are reinforced with technology, training, monitoring and discipline,” spokeswoman Rachel Wall said.
Dupalo said he just wants a chance to take the issue to the council as a whole, where it would be discussed among the elected officials and shown on television for residents to make up their own minds.
“We suffer the scars, and we have a saturation point,” he said. “It is very frustrating to have planning commissioners not understand the situation because it is in my backyard, not theirs.”
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0285 .