Pope County casino process ‘3 ring circus’

POPE COUNTY — “A three-ring circus” has come to town, complete with lawsuits and alleged closed-door meetings, threats and disregard of the law, according to one Baptist leader.

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Issue 4 (Amendment 100) was approved by Arkansas voters in November 2018 by a margin of 54 to 46 percent. The amendment allows for one casino license each to be awarded in Pope and Jefferson counties, which currently have no legal gambling operations, as well as casino licenses to be awarded to Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs and Southland Gaming and Racing in West Memphis.

Pope County voters opposed the casino amendment by a margin of 60 to 40 percent and also passed a local ordinance by a nearly 70 percent margin that requires an election to allow a casino to be built in the area.

The statewide amendment has had serious local repercussions in Pope County during the past nine months.

Greg Sykes, pastor of First Baptist Church, Russellville, and president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention (ABSC), described the process as a “three-ring circus.”

“Right now, we have local churches being threatened with disruptions of Sunday services by pro-casino forces. We appear to have any number of illegal meetings being held by elected officials with casino officials. Nothing is being done in an open, public forum. Our community is being split into some ugly factions,” said Sykes.

“The county remains in limbo, and the application process is a three-ring circus,” he said.

In June, the Arkansas Racing Commission rejected five casino applicants and voted to reopen the application window for 90 days. On Aug. 13, the Pope County Quorum Court issued a letter of approval to the Cherokee Nation Businesses to build a casino and hotel complex, beating out four rivals. Two days later, Ben Cross, county judge, signed the letter and submitted it to the Arkansas Racing Commission. On Monday, Aug. 19, four days after a Mississippi company filed a lawsuit against the Arkansas Racing Commission, the commission took no action on the letter but instead opened another 90-day window for accepting new applications for a casino license in Pope County.

“As simply as I can put it, even the racing commission is aware that the Quorum Court action was filled with legal hurdles,” Sykes said.

Allegations are being reviewed, he said, “that the Quorum Court negotiated the contract with the Cherokees in illegal, closed-door meetings, that they threatened several justices of the peace with potential lawsuit liability if they did not approve the contract and that they ignored a law that requires a local option before such a contract is entered into.”

The question of illegal meetings has been sent to the Office of the Prosecutor Coordinator in Little Rock for assignment to a special prosecutor, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Some argue that the state law, Issue 4, trumps the local ordinance and, thus, no local option is required before a casino is built. If such a special election was held to gain approval of Pope County voters, the earliest date would likely be March 3, 2020, the Democrat-Gazette reported.

The Pope County issues “would not exist if the state voters had not mandated that Pope County enter the casino gaming business. We didn’t want it. We voted heavily against it. But it was imposed upon us.

“Everyone should be able to watch and see the chaos and backdoor influencing, hear the threats, read the legal bluffs, and realize this is the kind of business groups the state invited into our backyards by soliciting casino gaming as a form of entertainment,” Sykes said.

As ABSC president, Sykes calls on all Arkansas Baptists to pray and take action to oppose the proposed casino in Pope County. “I believe the prayers of Arkansas Baptists make a difference. I know, personally, I have been solidified in my determination to fight this battle because of phone calls and emails of encouragement from Arkansas Baptists.

“And I personally believe this is a worthwhile fight to protect the lowest socio-economic groups in our county who will be devastated by this casino, but it’s also a test case for other such predatory industries that could be lurking around the corner in our state. We need to make this hard. We need to fight until the last option is gone. We need to love what’s right and true and good just as much as the other side loves the almighty dollar. If we do not, we’re going to look around in a few years and owe future generations an apology for how we refused to protect them and allowed our state’s morality to disappear with hardly a word said,” Sykes said.

Citizens For A Better Pope County, led by Jim Knight, is doing its part to oppose the casino. An Aug. 13 Facebook post by the group said, “We have stated from the beginning that the decision regarding a casino in Pope County should be in the hands of Pope County voters. “Press reports have emerged of decisions having already been made, and illegal meetings and discussion by Quorum Court members, while no public consideration or discussion of the casino applicants by the Quorum Court has taken place. “Whether you’re for or against a casino, you should demand transparency in the business of our elected officials.”

Judge Cross and members of the Quorum Court have been sued by Citizens For A Better Pope County. The suit asked that no casino be endorsed without first holding an election as required by the local ordinance.

In early summer, a grass-roots pro-casino group, Pope County Majority, led by Kelly Jett, was launched. Some believe the tide of support for a casino in Pope County is beginning to turn in favor of the casino.

“A month ago, the only people we were hearing from were people opposing the casino. It really looked like a one-sided issue,” Pope County Justice of the Peace Ray Black told the Democrat-Gazette. “Now we’re receiving multiple, multiple emails and letters from people wanting the casino here in Pope County.

“The biggest thing we’re doing is trying to find out what the majority of Pope County wants to do when it comes to this subject. And we’re not any closer to that answer than when we started.”

Contact Margaret Colson at margaret@arkansasbaptist.org.

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