The wrangling in Pope County over casino gambling continues in various courts.
The major issue is the effort by Gulfside Casino Partnership to get Pulaski Circuit Judge Tim Fox to schedule a hearing on their lawsuit contending they have sufficient approval from officials in office last year to apply for the casino permit that state voters approved for Pope County in 2018. Fox has dug in. He doesn’t want to hear the case, though state law seems to require jurisdiction in Pulaski County. If he must hear it, he says he’ll take his time getting around to it.
Then there’s the group Citizens for a Better Pope County, which has filed notice of appeal of the Pope Circuit Court decision that struck down a local county ordinance requiring a vote before the Quorum Court could back a casino applicant. The Quorum Court ignored the ordinance in approving a Cherokee tribe casino proposal. Circuit Judge Bill Pearson ruled the local referendum ordinance was unconstitutional.
Pope County Judge Ben Cross and the Quorum Court have taken the, to me, unusual step of seeking a ruling that Citizens for a Better Pope County should pay their attorney fees in the unsuccessful lawsuit. Seems to me the Citizens had a legitimate beef — the Quorum Court ignoring the referendum ordinance. Seems to me that the ordinance should have been presumed legal until a judge ruled otherwise. But I’m practicing law without a license. And I do agree the county ordinance was unconstitutional. That fact was so clear, the county officials argue, that the lawsuit was meritless and their attorney fees should be covered.
The county has filed for attorney fees and will get a hearing on that request at 3 p.m. Monday in Pearson’s court. Add this seasoning to that stew: A casino opponent has filed a judicial ethics complaint against Pearson because his re-election campaign briefly touted his ruling against the referendum ordinance on a campaign Facebook page. Volunteer campaigners said that was their mistake, not a decision by the judge, and took down the endorsement of the judge by County Judge Cross.
The state Racing Commission has so far deferred action on casino permit applications as the legal wrangling continues.
Still also pending: a special prosecutor’s investigation of whether the Pope County Quorum Court violated the Freedom of Information Act in the communications that led to the court’s approval of a $40 million deal with the Cherokees on backing their permit application. In the end, the deal was approved by the county legislative body without debate and scant advance public notice.