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That curious conflict in Pope County over a proposed casino isn't all about Pope County anymore.

Every citizen in the state of Arkansas has a dog in this fight, thanks to a decision last week by Fifth Judicial Circuit Judge Bill Pearson of Clarksville.

Pearson ruled that an initiated ordinance, passed by Pope County voters to require a public vote before the Quorum Court could endorse any proposed casino, is unconstitutional.

That part of his decision will likely stand up on appeal.

But that was only part of Pearson's ruling.

Pearson did serious damage to Arkansas' open-meetings law when he found that Pope County Judge Ben Cross and members of the local Quorum Court could lawfully meet privately to discuss the casino endorsement.

The decision came in a lawsuit brought by an anti-casino group, Citizens for a Better Pope County.

The group was seeking to upend a Pope County Quorum Court endorsement of Cherokee Nation Businesses' application to operate a casino and resort just outside Russellville.

The Quorum Court voted to endorse the Cherokees' application after the judge and some court members allegedly met in secret with casino company representatives.

They did so without calling an election and in apparent violation of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, which requires public bodies to do the public's business in public.

Pearson said last week that the FOI law allows officials "to have a little bit of, you know, talking among each other."

His view strays considerably from prior court decisions that have protected the public's right to know how public business is conducted.

Public officials should not talk privately among themselves about public business -- particularly when the public business concerns something as potentially transformative as the selection of a casino operator.

Unless a higher court reverses Pearson, both his ruling on the constitutionality of the initiated ordinance and on the FOI Act's application to the Pope County officials' secret meetings will stand.

Thankfully, Citizens for a Better Pope County expects to appeal Pearson's decision, opening the opportunity for the Supreme Court to re-establish precedent for open government.

Pope County is one of just four sites where a casino is authorized under Amendment 100, passed in 2018 by state voters.

Five different applicants are seeking the state license to operate a casino there, promising multi-million-dollar developments and more if they are chosen.

The Arkansas Racing Commission has already approved licenses for expansion of casino gambling at racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis and for a new casino in Pine Bluff.

Key to the process for licensing the new casinos is the required endorsement of local officials.

Pope County voters thought they would get a say, via an election, when they overwhelmingly approved the local ordinance that Judge Pearson found unconstitutional last week.

Incidentally, his ruling came a day after the Quorum Court, on its second try, voted to repeal the ordinance that had fueled the lawsuit, arguably to limit continued litigation expense.

But there is also a pending criminal complaint that was filed with the Pope County prosecutor's office and since turned over to a special prosecutor for review. It, too, concerns the current officials' possible violation of the FOI Act.

And there is a pending investigation of a complaint filed with the state Ethics Commission against the county judge and three members of the Quorum Court.

To top it all off, there is yet another lawsuit pending with a hearing scheduled Nov. 25 in Pulaski County Circuit Court. It involves a separate but related question.

Initially, the former county judge and former mayor of Russellville signed off on another applicant's bid for the Pope County license.

The Racing Commission then drafted rules that required the endorsements to come from people in office at the time of the application. The Legislature also put the requirement into law this year.

That brought on an as-yet-undecided lawsuit against the Racing Commission and the state Department of Finance and Administration.

Gulfside Casino Partnership, which had secured the endorsements from the lame-duck officials last year, maintains those letters of support meet the constitutional requirement for endorsement from local officials.

The stakes in this whole mess are obviously high in Pope County. But the controversy's impact on the public's right to know has made it all of Arkansas' business now.

Commentary on 11/06/2019

Print Headline: Gambling with transparency

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