POPE COUNTY, Ark. — Odds are, if you live in Pope County, you have an opinion about casinos. But for many, the process of getting or rejecting casinos is more confusing than any table game.
The county judge and quorum court attempted to remove some of that confusion during a special meeting Tuesday evening. A crowd so large that dozens of people waited in the lobby attended, hoping for answers about the future of Ordinance 2018-O-42.
“The people of Pope County are independent people,” Travis Story told the quorum court. “They have a voice and they want it to be heard.”
Story, who helped draft that ordinance, attempted to explain to the justices of the people and the audience members its intent.
The ordinance was approved by voters in Pope County in November 2018 at the same time that voters statewide approved Amendment 100, which allowed for casino gaming.
Amendment 100 states that a casino license may be granted in Jefferson and Pope counties if the applicant has a letter of support from the county judge or quorum court (or mayor, if the casino is to be built within an incorporated area).
While voters statewide approved the amendment, a majority in Pope County were against it.
“If the public had input when it first started, whenever Pope County was supposed to be on this amendment, we probably wouldn’t be here tonight,” William Stevenson told the court.
Ordinance 2018-O-42, pushed by Citizens for a Better Pope County, adds another layer of local control. It requires the county judge or quorum court to send a question to the county’s voters before they can submit a letter of support.
Story said the intent of the ordinance is to allow the entire county to decide whether one of the proposed operators is a good fit. He said the election called for in the ordinance should come only if the quorum court or county judge have a company they believe in.
“’Here’s what we desire, we have done our due diligence, we have figured out what we think is the best,’ and put that before the citizens of Pope County,” Story said. “And at that point—hopefully in a general election, which doesn’t cost anybody any extra money—they can come out and say here’s what we wish to do.”
While Story argued that the ordinance relates to a vote about a specific casino operator, Cross and the justices of the peace have a different interpretation, believing that it refers to any operator. In that case, a vote could be held at any time and would become a new indicator of the level of support within the county for a casino.
Cross said he called Tuesday’s special meeting because some of the justices want to call for that vote soon.
“For too long,” quorum court member Caleb Moore told the crowd, “this issue has divided this community. It has pitted friends against one another, untrue rumors to be cast on elected officials, and an overall negative environment for all that live or travel through this beautiful community. It’s time that we come together, whether for or against, and cast your vote.”
Cross, however, believes the local ordinance is invalid. He said that whenever state and local laws are in conflict, state law prevails. In this case, Amendment 100 has a method by which Pope County controls whether a casino operator can get a license, and that is the letter of support.
“There’s 3 million people in the state of Arkansas, and one person decides whether a casino comes here, and you’re looking at him,” Cross said to the crowd in his opening remarks. “That’s it. There’s one person. So, I take the gravity of the situation extremely serious, and I don’t take it in light. And this room is packed full of people who have opinions both way or another. But, when it comes down to it, the buck stops here.”
Cross said he has met with all five of the companies that applied for a casino license in Pope County and spends a couple hours a day reviewing their proposals or answering residents’ questions related to casinos. He said the importance of the task demands his due diligence.
“We are in full acknowledgement that the state of Arkansas passed Amendment 100,” he said after the meeting. “We are in full acknowledgement of the parameters of what Amendment 100 calls for. But, the quorum court and myself have made our position abundantly clear on this: that we’re going to honor the will of the people. The will of the people in Pope County voted this measure down by about a ratio of 60-40. And in doing that, they sent a sound message to us that they didn’t want me to write that letter of support. They didn’t want the quorum court to do a resolution.”
Cross added that, if in the future it could be demonstrated that the people of Pope County had collectively changed their minds, he would consider a casino, but said he is nowhere near that point.
Many people spoke during the hour-and-a-half-long meeting. They were asked to keep their comments solely to the local ordinance, but several indicated whether they supported or opposed casinos, as well.
“You could see it was pretty much equal,” Cross stated. “There was equal support from the support of casinos to the opposition to casinos. I think that was apparent that they were pretty evenly across the board in the room tonight.”
Moore was not the only person who hoped that further discussion of the local ordinance, and a possible future vote, would inspire unity in Pope County. Jim Knight, who opposes a casino, asked Will Wetzel, who he said was a close friend, to stand next to him during his comments to the court.
“Will and I are on different sides of this issue, since Day One,” Knight said. “But I don’t think either one of us are afraid of not being friends at the end, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes, sir,” Wetzel replied.
If the quorum court does call for another election, in accordance with the local control ordinance, the soonest people could vote would be November, Cross said. It would need to be introduced by the quorum court at its next meeting, in July, with an ordinance and resolution approved in November. Alternative dates for an election include the 2020 primary or the general election in November 2020.