Richmond residents will get to vote on whether the City Council should approve a plan to build a casino at Point Molate, City Council decided Tuesday night. Only trouble is, the vote won’t count for anything.
The council voted 4-2 to place an “advisory” ballot measure on the November 2 statewide election ballot, asking Richmond residents whether or not they approve of a plan to build a proposed 4,000-slot Indian casino at Point Molate. An advisory measure does not carry any legal weight – rather, it serves as a public opinion poll of sorts.
The winning advisory measure, written by Councilmember Tom Butt, was approved by councilmembers Nat Bates, Jeff Ritterman, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, and Butt. Councilmembers Maria Viramontes and Jim Rogers voted ‘no,’ and Ludmyrna Lopez abstained.The motion beat out a similar measure proposed by Viramontes. The language in the two measures was nearly identical, except that Viramontes’ proposal asked whether the city should “approve a project including a casino with shoreline and open space protections at Pt. Molate.” Butt’s proposal did not include any language related to open-space protections.
The casino is part of a larger plan for a $1.2 billion hotel resort at Point Molate being developed by Upstream Point Molate, LLC. The developers are planning to partner with the Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians to operate the casino. A 2004 Land Development Agreement between the city and Upstream has been extended six times – most recently extended until April 2011 – to negotiate the terms of the plan.
Jim Levine, the project’s lead developer, sent members of the council a letter on Monday urging them to drop the advisory ballot measure entirely, arguing that voters could not make an informed choice about the plan before its final Environmental Impact Review has been finalized. The EIR is expected to be finished sometime this fall.
“We understand that opponents of the project believe they have a better chance of scoring political points by contesting the project without the facts,” Levine wrote. “Why else would they push for a project vote just ahead of the release of the EIR and prior to the conclusion of the public outreach process?”
Members of the crowd Tuesday voiced overwhelming support for the ballot measure, touting the need for community input in what has become a highly divisive issue in Richmond. John Salmon, a Napa-based executive with Upstream LLC, spoke out against the measure, but found little support from the crowd, several of whom held posters reading “Let us vote.”
Vice Mayor Ritterman said that unless residents vote overwhelmingly in one direction or another on the issue, the measure is unlikely to make much difference to policy. Ritterman, who has stated in the past that he opposes the casino plan, also said that because of the amount of money likely to be spent on advertising for the advisory measure, a vote couldn’t necessarily be considered an accurate poll of residents’ feelings.
“It all depends on how you spin [the results],” Ritterman said. “Those who’ll win will say, ‘Majority rules, so we get our way.’ My feeling is if it’s 50-50, that tells you it’s a big problem for our community – one guys feels one way, and his neighbor feels another. It’s a wedge issue that divides our community, so that’s a vote in favor of not going with [the plan to build the casino].”
In other gambling-related news, on Tuesday the council heard a proposed ordinance that would update the city’s laws relating to bingo games. The new ordinance would remove the current restriction on the number of days per week that bingo halls could host games, and updates laws pertaining to prize money, police presence and alcohol sales. All bingo games in Richmond must be conducted by nonprofit groups and for charity, and the games’ organizers must now submit to a criminal background check in order to host bingo nights.
The issue, benign as it may seem, actually stems from an incident earlier this year in which the city revoked a gaming license from the Marina Bay Bingo Club, an American Legion-sponsored club that purported to raise money for war veterans. The Legion’s post commander, Eddie Welbon, was found to have a criminal history of fraud and money laundering, leading the city to shutter the club. According to its Web site, the Marina Bay Bingo Club is still searching for a new nonprofit group to run its bingo games.
The incident caused considerable embarrassment for the city, which had made a great spectacle of the bingo hall’s grand opening in March.
The revised bingo ordinance should come back before the council for a final vote next week.
In other news Tuesday, the council approved plans to double the funding for its popular sewer lateral grant program to $200,000. City residents can apply for a grant up to $30,000 from the city to help pay for repairs to their sewer laterals – the pipes that run under sidewalks to connect individual homes’ sewers to the city-run system.
Council also unanimously passed a resolution to oppose state Proposition 23, which would suspend AB 32, a 2006 state law regulating air-pollution standards, until state unemployment figures drop below 5 percent for an entire year. AB 32, also known as the Global Warming Solutions Act, requires the state to reach 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2020. Councilmembers McLaughlin, Ritterman and Butt proposed the council resolution.
In a move that drew a few chuckles, Councilman Butt also proposed a resolution naming the Perennial Purple Tree Collard as the city’s official “green.” Butt pointed to the collard’s nutritional value (it’s rich in calcium, vitamins A, B1, B2, B9 and C), close historical ties to Richmond (it was brought to Richmond from the American South most likely during the city’s WWII-era boom) and toughness as reason enough for the city to adopt it. The plant is currently the “mascot” of Urban Tilth, a non-profit group promoting urban agriculture.
The motion passed unanimously.
Tuesday’s session, which was highlighted by a packed house, lasted until nearly 2 a.m., when council members ran out of gas and voted to postpone the final two agenda items until next week.