Fine story by Jeannie Roberts in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this morning based on material unearthed by the Freedom of Information Act. It adds to the growing scandal of efforts to build a casino in Pope County.
Thanks in part to evidence from Russellville School Superintendent Mark Gotcher it is now clearer than ever that County Judge Ben Cross and multiple members of the Pope County Quorum Court met privately to discuss proposals to build a casino in the county, particularly the winning $38.8 million pay-to-play offer from the Cherokee tribe.
This deal was approved without previous public notice or discussion at a Quorum Court meeting last week — a pre-done deal worked out in private if there ever was one.
Pope County voters said last year they didn’t want a casino. They also said they wanted a vote before the Quorum Court approved a resolution endorsing one. Voters have been told to get screwed (effectively, I’ll add, to answer some literal readers). Promises of jobs and riches turned the heads of elected officials. Their thinking seems to be that the money will turn the heads of voters, too. I’m not so sure, particularly given the dishonesty and disregard for the public that has attended this spectacle.
But there’s a point mentioned in passing in Roberts’ story that bears further attention. Gotcher told county officials he couldn’t support a proposal that affected the school district’s property tax stream.
I’m aware of nothing in the deal approved by an 8-4 Quorum Court vote that would affect school property taxes. Indeed, the building of a casino should add property wealth to the tax rolls.
Unless …… there’s been some talk of Russellville annexing the casino property, which sits outside city limits, and further unconfirmed talk should that happen of bonding the development — that is an Act 9-type deal where public bonds would be issued to pay for construction of the project. In such a deal, the property would be publicly owned and thus exempt from property taxes, except to the extent the operator would agree to a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement. I want to emphasize this is all speculative. But I could see where the head of a school district, the major beneficiary of property taxes, would be concerned. Add it to the list of questions that county officials should answer if they ever decide to conduct casino business transparently and accountably.
I think JPs and the county judge who met in private and talked about the casino violated the law. I hope the special prosecutor who reviews this case will file charges. The arrogance and ignorance reflected in comments Roberts was able to gather from one JP, Doug Skelton, suggests some deterrence is necessary to prevent further flouting of the law.
“You guys are a bunch of…,” Skelton said before halting, then continued by asking an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter, “Are you telling me it was planned? I didn’t call a meeting.”
Multiple members of a public body in a room discussing a matter soon to come to a vote IS a meeting.
UPDATE: I talked with Mark Gotcher, the school superintendent, about his mention of an unwillingness to see school property taxes affected by any casino agreement. He told me in a phone interview that he made the statement because of questions raised by others on at least two occasions of whether a provision could be made to share Russellville school district property tax revenues from a casino project (the proposed Cherokee site is in his district) with other school districts in the county. He said he’d oppose such a division, in part because it probably isn’t allowed by law.
Gotcher also provided me with documents he’d provided the D-G:
A summary he prepared of the meeting he attended at which several JPs were present.
And text messages with the county judge.
And speaking of FOI requests, here’s a response provided by JP Doug Skelton, a lawyer, asking for any communications he might have had related to a casino in Pope County.
He responded in late December that his law office had no “public records” at his law office that relate to “Justice of the Peace Doug Skelton’s” correspondence or communications related to a casino.
He added that if his law office did have a public record regarding any correspondence or proposal from a casino operator, “said records are proprietary in nature and not discoverable” under the law.
Confidence inspiring, it isn’t.