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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — A roulette wheel spins at Cherokee Casino & Hotel in West Siloam Springs, Okla.

RUSSELLVILLE -- The Russellville City Council voted in a specially called meeting Thursday to establish a seven-member committee to evaluate applications for a Pope County casino license -- even though one prospect has already been picked by county officials.

The lone holdout on the eight-member council was Council Member Rick Harrell, who opposed the move because he said the voice of Pope County voters was heard in November when nearly 70% voted against Amendment 100 -- which changed the state constitution to allow four casinos in the state -- and passed an initiated county ordinance that would require officials to seek voter approval before backing a casino applicant.

"I thought the will of the people was we don't want a casino," Harrell said.

The City Council's actions came on the heels of last month's surprise endorsement by the Pope County Quorum Court of Cherokee Nation Businesses for a casino license. The company was one of five competing for the license in Pope County.

Before turning the meeting over to Council Member Chris Olson to present the resolution, Mayor Richard Harris went around the table naming the council members and giving a short biography of their accomplishments and character.

"Greedy?" Harris said at the end of each introduction. "I don't think so."

Harris said he was responding to outside criticism that he and the City Council members were greedy for wanting a seat at the table in selecting a casino operator who will likely build outside the city limits.

"It sickens me when I hear that this council is being greedy because we're striving to get a revenue stream for the citizens of our community," Harris said.

On Wednesday, two casino operators -- Warner Gaming of Nevada and Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce of Oklahoma -- encouraged Harris in two letters to get the City Council to conduct its own "open and transparent" vetting process and choose the best option for such a business.

Russellville was excluded from an Economic Development Agreement negotiated by Ben Cross, the county judge of Cross County, that includes the promise of an initial $38.8 million "Economic Development Fee" to be distributed among other cities and nonprofit organizations within the county.

The city's resolution -- which passed 7-1 -- calls for the committee, which will "represent a cross section of the community," to review each casino proposal and "most importantly, that the review and evaluation process by the committee be open, accessible and transparent to the public and press."

The "Community Gaming Evaluation Committee" will consist of seven residents of the county who will be:

• One person selected by the Russellville City Council;

• One person from the Pope County Quorum Court;

• One person representing a school district selected by the City Council;

• One person representing an institution of higher education;

• One person from the Arkansas Valley Alliance for Economic Development; and

• Two people selected by the mayor.

The council voted to appoint Council Member Eric Westcott to the committee.

Selections must be made and reported to the mayor by 4 p.m. Monday.

The council agreed with a request from Council Member Mark Tripp that a draft of the Request for Qualifications -- used to collect the submission of casino applications -- be reviewed by the council at its Sept. 19 meeting.

The committee meetings will be held in open session with sufficient notice to the press and public, according to the resolution.

The deadline for a final report from the committee to the City Council is no later than Nov. 5.

The deadline comes just before the Nov. 18 closing of a second window opened last month by the state Racing Commission to receive casino license applications.

The second window for applications was opened up after 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 -- were rejected by the Racing Commission in June because none contained endorsements by local officials, which is required by Amendment 100.

The amendment -- which allows a new casino in both Pope and Jefferson counties, and allows the expansion of gambling at the racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis -- requires new casinos to have the backing of local officials.

Gulfside's application included endorsements from previous local officials who issued their support in December right before leaving office. The company is now suing the Racing Commission in circuit court because the company says a commission rule passed earlier this year -- to require that the officials be currently in office at the time the application is made -- is unconstitutional.

Council Member Justin Keller said Cross and the Pope County Quorum Court had changed their positions before about the possibility of a Pope County casino so it's not impossible to think they could possibly change it again.

Nothing is set in stone, Keller said, and anything the council can do "to bring some transparency back" to the process will benefit the people of Pope County.

"I think a lot of things happened in the dark," Keller said. "It didn't happen in the light of day."

Council Member Larry Brown said that very few council members had heard the proposals by the various casino interests.

Kelly Jett, the founder of the grass-roots pro-casino group Pope County Majority, told Harris and the council members that establishing the committee at this point is too late in the game and took issue with Keller's assertion that the council was not aware of the contents of the proposals.

"If you do not have the information, it's because you didn't do your homework," Jett said.

Harrell said the City Council trusted Cross and the county Quorum Court would follow the rule of the law that was put in place by voters in November.

"It has to do with the integrity of the body did not follow the law that was on the books," Harrell said.

Besides Gulfside, other lawsuits and complaints have been lodged concerning the casino issue in Pope County.

Hans Stiritz, on behalf of the anti-casino group Concerned Citizens of Pope County, filed a complaint -- which contained affidavits from Pope County Justice of the Peace Joseph Pearson and six other residents -- with Pope County prosecutor Jeff Phillips alleging that county officials held meetings that violated the Freedom of Information Act to discuss casinos.

The Office of the Prosecutor Coordinator in Little Rock announced Thursday that Little Rock lawyer Jason Barrett has been appointed as a special prosecutor to review the complaint to determine if charges will be filed.

Negligently violating the Freedom of Information Act is a Class C misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $500.

James Knight, on behalf of Citizens for a Better Pope County, filed two civil suits, one against the Racing Commission and the other against Cross and members of the Pope County Quorum Court.

Jacksonville lawyer William Ogles also filed three complaints last month with the state Ethics Commission against Pope County Justices of the Peace Caleb Moore, Doug Skelton and Ernie Enchelmayer.

Metro on 09/06/2019

Print Headline: Russellville City Council votes to set up casino panel

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