he Pope County Quorum Court will consider an ordinance at 5 p.m. Monday to repeal the 2018 voter-approved ordinance that required a county vote before county officials could approve a casino proposal in the county.
Opponents of a casino development, who objected the last time the subject was discussed, are organizing opposition. Amendment 100, approved by voters statewide, allowed new casinos in Jefferson County (already in operation by the Quapaw tribe) and Pope County, where five casino operators are vying for the right to build.
At the same election (in which Pope County voters expressed opposition to statewide casino expansion), voters approved a referred ordinance requiring a vote. Before the end of 2018, the then-county judge, due to leave office at the end of the year, signaled his approval of a casino proposal by Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi. This year, the Quorum Court endorsed a casino proposal by the Cherokee tribe in concert with a hospitality group whose owners include Arkansas native and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
A lawsuit challenges the validity of Quorum Court approval of the Cherokee bid before a local vote. Repeal of the vote ordinance would remove that obstacle. It would not clear up the lawsuit by Gulfside, which contends it had the only approval required by the constitutional amendment in 2018. It says subsequent rule-making by the state Racing Commission and legislature to specify that approval was required by current county officials were unconstitutional expansions of the amendment.
Also pending are allegations of improper secret meetings by the Quorum Court in choosing the Cherokee bid (without discussion) and ethics misconduct. Furthermore, there is an effort by the city of Russellville to inject itself into the process with its own review of casino applicants. It was left out of the $38 million in upfront payments to public agencies promised by the Cherokees if they got the Quorum Court casino approval. Last week, the Russellville City Council's gaming committee selected a Iowa casino company of Dubuque over two other contenders to recommend for a Pope County casino license.
Also last week, the Arkansas Racing Commission, which reopened a permit application period through November 18, decided it shouldn’t go forward with an award of a permit until hearings in the two major lawsuits are held, as reported by Arkansas Times. On another topic, the commission also approved transferring the license granted to Downstream Development Authority of the Quapaw Tribe to Saracen Development LLC for a casino in Jefferson County.
A hearing is set Oct. 29 in the lawsuit insisting an election must be held. Another is set Nov. 25 on Gulfside’s argument that its initial application was improperly rejected because it didn’t include approval from current county officials. The Quorum Court has said it won’t waver from its endorsement of the Cherokee bid.
The Quorum Court discussed repealing the election ordinance Oct. 3. No action was taken, perhaps because absences meant the body was lacking the necessary two-thirds vote for repeal. An attorney for the county recommended repeal because he said the county wasn’t allowed under the Constitution to add an additional restriction — a local vote — to the process set out in Amendment 100 for a casino permit. County Judge Ben Cross has said repeal would save the county money in defending against the lawsuit.