Hot times tonight in Pope County.
With little advance notice, the Pope County Quorum Court has scheduled a “discussion” of the county ordinance adopted in 2018 that said a local election was required before county officials gave approval to a casino under the 2018 casino expansion amendment.
That ordinance passed overwhelmingly and county voters also voted against casino expansion. But the amendment was approved statewide and action has been fast and furious since. The Quorum Court, without prior notice or discussion, endorsed giving approval to a Cherokee-owned casino, essentially in return for a promise of $38 million in contributions to county and local projects. No specific grants were given to Russellville, although many of the payments such as for the justice system and ambulance service, will benefit Russellville. As a result, Russellville has established a committee to entertain casino pitches though the Quorum Court has said it won’t move off its backing of the Cherokee proposal. Quorum Court members have also said the election ordinance was invalid, though that’s an issue not yet decided by a court.
Another complication were the letters of endorsement a Mississippi casino operator received last year from a county judge and Russellville mayor who left office at the end of 2018. That company contends it has met the terms of the amendment and should be given the license. But the legislature and state Racing Commission this year approved measures that said a casino applicant needed approval of officials in office when the application is made. The Mississippi operator is suing, contending those rules are unconstitutional. It has declined to participate in the Russellville casino applicant review, but four others, including the Cherokees, are.
I’ve heard from a casino opponent who sent a copy of an e-mail complaining about tonight’s Quorum Court meeting to County Judge Ben Cross. He contends the Quorum Court will vote tonight to repeal the voter-passed election ordinance.
According to a copy of a response from Cross, he said the idea of a repeal of the ordinance would be to save the county the cost of a lawsuit. A lawsuit will proceed against the state by the Mississippi casino operator. “That being said, I don’t have a vote and I can’t repeal anything,” Cross’s note said.
That’s all I know at the moment, but The Courier is covering the meeting live on Facebook.
CORRECTION: Sorry. The Courier is not broadcasting this meeting live. That’s a link to video of the meeting at which the secretly negotiated deal with the Cherokees was approved.
UPDATE: River Valley Now has a video of the meeting, which opens and closes with objections from the public to a repeal of the election ordinance. Many spoke out against a casino generally. One resident said he felt betrayed by Quorum Court approval of the Cherokee proposal.
The Quorum Court’s lawyer said the election ordinance was unconstitutional because it infringed on state law and constitution. He recommended that the ordinance be repealed to simplify pending legal issues. But after extensive comments, no vote was taken, perhaps because two members of the Quorum Court were absent and there was some doubt about the outcome.
In another development, Rep. Joe Cloud of Russellville wrote the state Racing Commission and urged it to delay making a decision on pending applications to operate a casino in Pope County until legal issues are resolved. Only the Cherokee application will have the necessary support from local officials as it now stands.