CUDAHY — After years of bickering about who, where, when and how bingo should be played in this town, city leaders have thrown up their hands and voted to outlaw the game.
At a special meeting Wednesday, the City Council voted 4 to 1 to repeal an ordinance that allows bingo to be offered by organizations in Cudahy for charitable purposes. The council must vote on the repeal one more time at its October meeting before it goes into effect.
"I like bingo, but it's just caused too much trouble," Mayor Joseph Graffio said. "We need to do away with it to quiet things down in Cudahy."
Councilman John Robertson voted against the repeal, saying the council should have held a public hearing before taking action on an ordinance passed in 1982 as part of a citywide referendum on allowing card casinos.
"The people wanted it, and I don't think this council should meddle with it," he said in an interview before the meeting.
City Manager Jack Joseph disputed Robertson's contention that the bingo ordinance was part of the referendum, saying the referendum passed by the people gave the City Council the power to pass a bingo ordinance. The council passed the ordinance a year later.
"If the ordinance had been passed by referendum," Joseph said, "then the City Council couldn't repeal it. It would have to be repealed by referendum."
Robertson also criticized his fellow council members and Joseph for scheduling the meeting at 10:30 a.m., when most residents are at work.
Bingo has been one of the most divisive issues in the city in the last few years, after it was suggested as a way to generate revenues for the city and for a now-defunct social service agency.
The question of who would run the games created great suspicion among council members, who publicly accused one another of trying to get bingo games started for personal and political profit. The agency closed in June, but controversy did not die.
Shortly after the agency closed, the City Council voted to strictly limit games in the city after some council members expressed concern that the sole bingo license holder in Cudahy was trying to thwart the intent of the original ordinance.
City leaders said bingo games in Cudahy were meant to be fund-raisers for small local organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce or senior citizen groups. But John Mgrdichian, a businessman who owns a Compton rubbish firm, was granted a license in 1989 to operate large-scale bingo games daily at a parlor he planned to build on Santa Ana Street. Mgrdichian said his nonprofit organization, the Social Service Foundation, would hold bingo to pay for social service programs such as food and clothing distribution.
Mgrdichian said he has invested more than $1 million in the planning and purchase of the building, which he hoped to convert to a bingo parlor.
He said he did not know what he will do, now that the council has repealed the ordinance, thus closing off the last avenue by which he could have operated games in town.
"I don't think the council is malicious, but this is going to hurt me, naturally," Mgrdichian said. "I have spent a lot of money over there. I get the feeling they just don't want me there, to say the least."
Mgrdichian said that "the last thing" he wants to do is sue the city, but he did not rule out the possibility and said his attorneys believe that he has a valid case.
In a letter to the city dated Sept. 4, Barry A. Fisher, one of Mgrdichian's attorneys, wrote that the restriction imposed by the new bingo ordinance discriminated against outside groups that want to start bingo games in Cudahy.
"These changes are unfair and discriminatory and appear to be aimed at the foundation, which is the only group in the city that has applied for a multi-night bingo license," Fisher wrote.
The letter also said the changes violate federal and state law.
Mayor Graffio and councilman Joseph Fregeau denied that the council is discriminating against Mgrdichian.
"We have nothing against him," Fregeau said. "The council doesn't think he's a bad guy. It's his associates that give us problems."
Fregeau said several of the current City Council members' most bitter foes are associated with the Social Service Foundation.
Graffio also said he is afraid that Mgrdichian would not be satisfied with a bingo parlor and would try to establish a card casino in town, which Mgrdichian stoutly denies.
"I want to do everything aboveboard," Mgrdichian said.
Robertson lambasted fellow council members for "running Mgrdichian out of town" because of political differences.
"It's a sorry excuse," he said.