A day after the Arkansas Racing Commission agreed to put its proposed draft of casino rules and regulations out for public vetting, a casino opponent asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit over a former county judge's last-minute endorsement of a Mississippi company's plans to build a casino in Pope County.
Little Rock lawyer Josh Sanford, who represents James Price Knight of Russellville, said the lawsuit was rendered moot in light of recent rules changes by the Racing Commission.
"The problem is primarily a political one that can be resolved correctly by the Racing Commission," Sanford said. "And the rules that the Racing Commission proposed resolve the issue that the lawsuit addressed."
Knight filed the suit Dec. 27 to prevent Jim Ed Gibson, then county judge of Pope County, from endorsing Gulfside Partnership for one of the state's first licenses for a full-fledged casino. The lawsuit was amended after it was found that Gibson had already penned the letter before retiring on Dec. 31 after 20 years in office.
The Racing Commission and Pope County's new county judge -- Ben Cross, who took office Jan. 1 -- were added to the lawsuit last week.
Messages left for Gibson were not returned as of late Friday.
Sanford requested the case be dismissed "without prejudice," meaning the complaint can be refiled within the next year.
The lawsuit came amid public outcry after Gibson, as well as then-Russellville Mayor Randy Horton, endorsed Gulfside's plans to build a 600-room, $254 million hotel and casino in Russellville.
The announcement came on the heels of November's passage of state constitutional Amendment 100, which authorized placing casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties as well as alongside existing gambling facilities at the racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis.
The amendment states that the casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties must include letters of support from either the county judge or the Quorum Court. If the casino is to be built within city limits in those counties, it also must have the mayor's support.
Pope County voters soundly rejected the measure and simultaneously passed a local ordinance that would require the county judge or the Quorum Court to get the permission of voters in a local election before supporting a casino.
Last week, the Racing Commission changed the drafted rules to say that endorsements can only come from current elected officials and can only be made at the time of a casino license application.
Also, under the drafted rules, any endorsement from a county's quorum court must also be signed off by the county judge, all quorum court members or the mayor, if applicable.
The Racing Commission will not begin accepting license applications until after the rules have been vetted through a public comment and hearing process and approved by legislative committee, which is expected to happen before March 14.
Under the amendment, review of the applications will begin no later than June 1.
In a Racing Commission meeting Thursday, several county and state officials as well as residents expressed their support of the changes in the proposed rules.
But Casey Castleberry, Gulfside's attorney, told the commissioners that the changes are not in line with the intent of the constitutional amendment and later said that the company may "seek judicial review" of the proposed rules.
Alex Gray, who helped draft Amendment 100 for the Driving Arkansas Forward ballot committee, suggested that the commission allow the endorsements already received from former local officials, but also require at least one letter or resolution of support by the county judge, mayor or Quorum Court holding office at the time of the application submission.
The rules will be published for three days in a statewide paper followed by a 30-day public comment period before a Feb. 21 public hearing by the commission.
At that time, the Racing Commission can vote to adopt, modify or reject the proposed rules before submitting them for legislative approval.
Metro on 01/12/2019
Print Headline: Anti-casino suit in Arkansas now moot, lawyer says