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County review of casino law fails

Debate centers on ’18 ordinance by Jeannie Roberts | October 22, 2019 at 7:14 a.m.
A large crowd, including these casino supporters, turned out in force for Monday evening’s meeting of the Pope County Quorum Court. The meeting was called for justices of the peace to consider repealing an initiated ordinance that requires a special election for voters to decide if they want local officials to endorse a casino applicant. In August, the Quorum Court backed Cherokee Nation Businesses as a casino operator without a mandate from voters.

RUSSELLVILLE -- In a special meeting Monday night, the Pope County Quorum Court failed at an attempt to consider repealing a 2018 ordinance that requires county officials to get permission from voters before they endorse a candidate for a casino license.

Ben Cross, county judge of Pope County, told the justices of the peace that he had a "fiduciary responsibility" to present a proposed resolution that, if adopted by the justices of the peace, would repeal Pope County Ordinance 2018-0-42.

Repealing the initiated ordinance would invalidate two lawsuits brought by the anti-casino group Citizens for a Better Pope County and save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation costs, Cross said.

But justices of the peace fell one vote short of suspending the rules so they could consider the resolution on the repeal. Discussion of the ordinance, including comments from the public, took up most of the two-hour meeting, in which two other unrelated items were on the agenda.

One lawsuit is against the county and the other is against the state Racing Commission. The suits argue that an Aug. 13 decision by the Pope County Quorum Court endorsing Cherokee Nation Businesses for the casino license is in direct contradiction to the requirements of the initiated county ordinance. No special election was called for voters to decide if county officials should endorse a casino applicant.

The county has already spent more than $17,000 in legal costs concerning the ordinance, Cross said.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of casinos in Arkansas at]

Fort Smith attorney Colby Roe, who represents Pope County in the lawsuits, told the justices of the peace that the ordinance is in direct contradiction to constitutional Amendment 100, passed by state voters in November 2018.

Amendment 100 -- which allows new casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties as well as the expansion into full-fledged casinos for Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs and Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis -- was soundly rejected by more than 60% of Pope County voters. That is the same election in which Pope County voters approved Ordinance 2018-0-42 by more than 12,000 votes.

"It is my ethical obligation to render you candid legal advice," Roe said, adding that the ordinance should be repealed because it is "unconstitutional and invalid."

By not repealing it, Roe said, the county is left open to even more litigation if the initiated ordinance is left in place and the Quorum Court decides to call an election to put the license endorsement question before voters.

"You may also be hit with an illegal exaction contest," Roe said. "You're in a bad situation."

If the ordinance is repealed, the basis for the lawsuits goes away, Roe said. If the initiated ordinance remains, the lawsuits would continue through expensive and lengthy appeals, he added.

The halls of the Pope County Courthouse were filled to capacity and the crowd spilled out the door before the meeting started. Because of a lack of room, not even half of the crowd of about 100 was allowed inside the Quorum Court meeting room.

About a dozen members of the public took turns at the lectern either encouraging the justices of the peace to repeal the ordinance or imploring them to keep it in place.

After Cross called for a vote to suspend the rules and allow the resolution to be heard, only eight justices -- Reuben Brown, Ernie Enchelmayer, Phillip Haney, Jackie Heflin, Caleb Moore, Doug Skelton, Tim Whittenburg and Ray Black -- of the 11 members present voted to hear the ordinance while three -- Joseph Pearson, Bill Sparks and Blake Tarpley -- voted against it. Nine votes -- or two-thirds of all members -- were required for the agenda item to be heard.

Two Quorum Court members -- Jamie Jackson and James Kusturin -- were absent from the 13-member body.

On Aug. 13, Kusturin was one of eight who voted to endorse the Cherokees while Jackson was one of four who voted against it.

In an interview after the meeting, Cross said the quest to repeal the initiated ordinance is dead in the water unless a justice of the peace opts to bring it up again at a future Quorum Court meeting.

The case filed by Citizens for a Better Pope County against the county is set for a hearing at 10 a.m. Oct. 29 in the Pope County Circuit Court in Russellville.

No hearing has been set for the case brought by casino opponent James Knight on behalf of Citizens for a Better Pope County against the state Racing Commission.


Several audience members, in T-shirts with the pro-casino group Pope County Majority logo and holding red signs declaring "REPEAL IT," told the Quorum Court members that the opposition was trying to force the financially strapped county to spend money to defend an ordinance that is null and void.

"This ordinance is a stain on our county," said David Henderson.

Support for a casino grew in June when the grass-roots group Pope County Majority was created on Facebook by Kelly Jett and quickly collected thousands of members.

Anna Stiritz, a member of the anti-casino group Citizens for a Better Pope County, asked the Quorum Court members to leave the initiated ordinance alone. She reminded the group of ongoing complaints and investigations outside the conflicts being heard in the courts.

One complaint is in the hands of Little rock lawyer Jason Barrett, who was appointed by the Office of the Prosecutor Coordinator to determine if any charges will be filed stemming from a complaint filed by Citizens for a Better Pope County. The complaint contained affidavits from Pearson, a justice of the peace, and six other residents alleging that county officials held meetings that violated the Freedom of Information Act to discuss casinos.

Jacksonville lawyer William J. Ogles also filed three complaints last month with the state Ethics Commission against three justices of the peace: Moore, Skelton and Enchelmayer.

Meanwhile, the Racing Commission decided last week to wait until after the outcome of pending lawsuits before once again considering applicants for a casino license in Pope County.

The commission opened a second window for applications after the Quorum Court endorsed the Cherokees.

In June, the Racing Commission rejected all five applicants for the Pope County casino -- Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi, Cherokee Nation Businesses of Oklahoma, Kehl Management of Iowa, Warner Gaming of Nevada and Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce of Oklahoma -- because none contained endorsements by local officials, which is required by Amendment 100.

Earlier this year, the Racing Commission adopted a rule and the Legislature passed a law to require that the endorsing officials be currently in office at the time the license application is submitted to the commission.

The constitutional amendment says only that an endorsement is required. It does not say when the endorsement should be issued.

One application, from Gulfside Casino Partnership, included letters of endorsement from previous local officials who had issued their support in December right before leaving office.

The Racing Commission was then sued by Gulfside, which contended it was the only applicant in the initial period that contained the endorsements required by Amendment 100. A hearing in that case is set for 9 a.m. Nov. 25 in Pulaski County Circuit Court in Little Rock.

In addition to the Cherokees being backed by the justices of the peace, Kehl Management has been recommended by a committee of the Russellville City Council. The City Council set up the committee after the city was left out of an agreement negotiated by Cross in which the Cherokees would provide $38.8 million to the county, several cities and nonprofit groups. But any casino applicant backed by the city must also have county endorsement.

Meanwhile, construction continues in Hot Springs and West Memphis, where those operations are expanding into full-fledged casinos, and in Pine Bluff, where construction is underway on a new casino complex operated by the Quapaw tribe.

A Section on 10/22/2019

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