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

In the midst of a battle over a potential casino license that has pitted neighbor against neighbor and divided county and city government, Pope County has a large number of contenders in this year's elections for its 13 justice-of-the-peace positions.

This year, 27 candidates have thrown their hats in the ring, leaving only two districts without opposition -- compared with the 2018 election cycle that had 15 candidates with only one district drawing competition.

"I believe the number of contested JP races is indicative of the spark in local government interest brought about by the casino issue from those on both sides of the debate," Ben Cross, county judge of Pope County, said in an email. "Interestingly enough, by the time the next Quorum Court actually takes office in 2021, I would anticipate the casino issue will be resolved by the judiciary. So, I hope incoming justices have as much fervor for the everyday operations of county government, aside of such a singular issue."

Feb. 18 is the first day of early voting in the March 3 election, which includes party primaries; the nonpartisan general election for judicial and school board candidates; and some ballot issues. In some of the Pope County Quorum Court races, Republicans will compete in the March 3 primary. Other candidates are independents who will face Republican nominees in the Nov. 3 general election.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of casinos in Arkansas at arkansasonline.com/casinos]

Most of the Quorum Court competitors are in one of two camps: casino versus anti-casino.

Pope County has been embroiled in conflict since the campaigning for constitutional Amendment 100 began in early 2018. Amendment 100, approved by voters in November 2018, allows new casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties and allows the expansion of gambling at the racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis.

The amendment requires new casinos to have the backing of local officials.

More than 60% of Pope County voters rejected the amendment and more than 70% of the voters approved an initiated county ordinance that would require officials to seek voter approval before backing a proposal.

But then five casino businesses expressed interest in applying for the license. A grassroots group, Pope County Majority, was created to push for a casino.

In a surprise move, Cross -- who had maintained that he would not endorse a casino applicant unless it was the will of the voters -- announced in August that he had negotiated a $38.8 million "economic development agreement" that would be disbursed among the county, some cities and some nonprofit organizations in exchange for the county's endorsement of Cherokee Nation Businesses of Oklahoma, one of the businesses interested in obtaining the license.

The license applications of the Cherokees and four other gambling operators -- Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi, Kehl Management of Iowa, Warner Gaming of Nevada and Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce of Oklahoma -- were rejected by the state Racing Commission in June because none contained endorsements by local officials in office at the time of the application.

Gulfside filed a lawsuit against the state Racing Commission in August, saying its application from May met the constitutional requirements because, unlike the others, it included letters of endorsement from local elected officials, though the letters were issued right before the officials left office in December 2018. The case is still pending. Also pending is another case filed by casino opponents against the Racing Commission.

The Pope County Quorum Court on Aug. 13 passed a resolution in support of the Cherokees, who have now applied multiple times for the license.

Of the 13 justices of the peace, eight voted to sign the resolution -- Phillip Haney, Caleb Moore, Reuben Brown, Jackie Heflin, Doug Skelton, James Kusturin, Ray Black and Ernie Enchelmayer. Four -- Jamie Jackson, Joseph Pearson, Bill Sparks and Tim Whittenburg -- voted against it, and Justice of the Peace Blake Tarpley abstained.

Quickly, those on both sides of the casino issue vowed to produce candidates to challenge those justices of the peace who did not vote to their liking on the issue. Justices of the peace serve two-year terms.

FOR THE RESOLUTION

What resulted is slightly more than double the number of competitors for the 13 slots. The only two districts that did not draw competitors were the District 5 seat held by incumbent Heflin and the District 8 spot held by Skelton. Both men are Republicans and both voted for the resolution to endorse the Cherokees.

These pro-casino incumbents all drew competitors:

District 1 -- Haney will face Tachany Evans and Harold Tate. Both Evans and Tate are anti-casino. All are Republican.

"Not only is the casino not a good investment for our community, our children, and the values of our citizens, but our representation voted against the clear will of our district," Evans said. "That's simply wrong."

District 2 -- Moore will face Jennifer Sloan. Both are Republicans. Sloan said on her campaign page on Facebook that she is running because she believes in "open and transparent government" and that people "have a right to expect their elected representative to reflect their wishes."

District 4 -- Brown will face Jason Muncy on March 3. Both are Republicans.

Muncy said he voted against Amendment 100 and for local control.

"I want to restore integrity to the local office of justice of the peace," Muncy said. "When the Quorum Court voted against the local control and trampled the will of the voter on this issue, I decided to give the voters in Pope County a choice in this justice of the peace election."

District 11 -- Black will face Lane Scott. Both are Republicans. The winner of the primary will face Ryan Richey, an independent, in the fall.

Scott said that he voted against Amendment 100 and he took issue with the process of how the Cherokees were chosen to receive the county's endorsement.

"It wasn't a fair and transparent process. They had illegal meetings and it just was not handled the right way," Scott said. "Lord willing, if I'm elected, I will be fair and transparent with the oversight and approval of the voters. They need to hold us accountable."

Richey did not return messages left for comment.

District 13 -- Enchelmayer will face David Ivy on March 3. Both are Republicans.

When contacted, Ivy was clear that he is anti-casino and "definitely anti-bond," referring to proposed initiatives on this year's general election ballot to pledge more than $80 million of future net casino revenue for county improvement projects.

"I served previously on the Quorum Court for eight years," Ivy said. "The way things are going and the way this court has handled the whole casino issue was not right."

AGAINST THE RESOLUTION

All incumbents who voted against the Cherokee resolution will face competitors:

District 3 -- Whittenburg, a Republican, will face Drew Brent, an independent, in the Nov. 3 election.

Brent said that he is "enthusiastically pro-growth" for Pope County.

"I'm excited about the possibilities a casino resort could bring for economic development in this area. That's partially why I challenged for this seat," Brent said. "I'm not running against Mr. Whittenburg per se. I admire his record of public service. However, the issue of growth in all economic development possibilities and providing opportunity for our citizens is the key reason I am running. I'm running to hopefully give our folks a chance to grow."

District 6 -- Jamie Jackson, a Republican, will face Michael Boyd, an independent, in the Nov. 3 election. Boyd is pro-casino.

District 9 -- Sparks will face Sean Jackson on March 3. Both are Republicans. Jackson is pro-casino.

District 12 -- Pearson will face Jason Ramsey on March 3. Both are Republicans. Ramsey is pro casino.

NO INCUMBENTS

The incumbents in two districts are not running for re-election:

District 7 -- Republicans Roy Reaves and Larry Pettus as well as independent Cody Bird filed to vie for the spot left vacant by incumbent Tarpley, who abstained from voting for the resolution. The winner of the primary will face Bird in the Nov. 3 general election.

Reaves, a retired banker, would not say whether he is for or against the casino coming to Pope County.

"That's the wrong question to be asking because that decision has already been made," Reaves said. "The question now is what do we do going forward? When you're been elected to an office, you swear to uphold the constitution. It really doesn't matter how I feel one way or the other."

Pettus, a Southern Baptist pastor, said he is solidly anti-casino, but decided to run after he felt insulted by the Quorum Court when he tried to have a voice in the issue during one of the meetings.

"I want to be a voice for the people. They're talking to us. We need to listen," Pettus said. "I'm strictly against the casino, but if people had voted for it, I would have backed their vote."

Bird said that he does not personally support a casino in Pope County.

"That being said, as an elected official, what is more important is what the voters of Pope County want. The majority of the voters in this county said no to the casino," Bird said. "Unfortunately, some members of the Quorum Court have lost sight of what is most important, the will of the people of Pope County. All that being said, I am pursuing this position to help ensure the will of the voters in this county will be carried out in all cases. I believe we can grow Pope County and do it in a way that will make us all proud to call this home."

District 10 -- Alan George and Phillip Gray, both Republicans, will compete for the slot now held by Kusturin, who voted in favor of endorsing the Cherokees.

George said that he voted for the local-control initiative because he believed Pope County residents deserved the right to vote.

"Our current Quorum Court made a back room deal, sent a letter, and took away the people's opportunity to vote. Their actions have thrown the issue into the courts, which will cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars," George said. "I am running to restore trust in our local government for the citizens of Pope County."

Messages left for Gray were not returned.

Debbie Ann Williams, a spokeswoman for Pope County Majority, said the election is important because the county has "remained stagnant in growth and development."

"We need candidates who are willing to step out and run because they see the potential our area has. About 25% of residents in Pope County live at or below the poverty level," Williams said. "You have a business, Cherokee Nation Businesses, that wants to be in our community and that can provide needed jobs. We need candidates in office that will allow for job growth. Too many people are scared of change, change can be good."

On the other side of the issue, Hans Stiritz, a leader in the anti-casino group Citizens for a Better Pope County, took issue with the incumbent justices of the peace who voted to issue a resolution for the Cherokees in what Stiritz said was a breach of their promise to their constituents.

Stiritz also referred to a letter issued late last month from Jason Barrett, a special prosecutor, saying Cross and several Quorum Court members violated the state Freedom of Information Act numerous times when selecting Cherokee Nation Businesses for the license. Barrett chose not to press criminal charges.

"Integrity and respect for the voters of Pope County seems to be short supply on the Quorum Court," Stiritz said. "We're really hopeful for a shake-up on the court this year."

SundayMonday on 02/09/2020

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