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Petition Drive Vowed After Council Rejects Card Casino : Gambling: Board's 4-0 decision is largely symbolic because voters by law must decide gaming issues. Developers need 100 signatures to place the matter on the ballot.

September 16, 1993|ANDREW LePAGE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IRWINDALE — City Council opposition to plans for the San Gabriel Valley's first card club has developers vowing to force an election in which Irwindale voters would decide the proposed casino's fate.

Just before council members took their symbolic stand Monday night against the club, Councilwoman Jacquelyn Breceda asked the developers a final question:

"What will it take to make you go away?"

She didn't get a direct answer, but the developers certainly have no plans to give up their quest.

In fact, they intend to launch a petition drive soon to collect the 100 signatures needed for the card club to qualify as a ballot initiative because the council declined to put the measure on the ballot. In any case, under state law, gambling establishments must win the approval of voters, even in cities where the council gives its assent.

The developers say they have been dealt a rotten--but by no means a losing--hand by council members, most of whom are concerned that the card club would bring crime and other illegal activity to their tiny, tight-knit community of about 1,000 residents.

Despite such fears, casino proponents say, none of the council members nor the town's anti-gambling police chief has offered statistics or other definitive evidence showing that card clubs cause crime.

"We firmly believe this is not a representative sample of the city of Irwindale. . . . there are less than 100 people at this meeting and there are (about) 600 registered voters in the city," said developer Michael Meczka, referring to the residents who came to Monday night's council meeting in opposition to his plans for a 60,000-square-foot casino.

In July, Mayor Robert Diaz and council members Breceda and Frederick Barbosa voted to ask Meczka to return to the council with more information on the proposed card club, which would be the sixth in the county.

At the July meeting, Councilman Julian A. Miranda and his uncle, Councilman Patricio Miranda, voted against hearing the matter further. They opposed the card club idea immediately; fellow council members said they needed to hear out any proposed development that could generate sales tax revenues for the city. The card club developers estimate that they could provide Irwindale with $3 million to $9 million a year in sales tax revenues.

Like a plan several years ago to build a stadium for the Los Angeles Raiders football team, a successful card club represents an opportunity for the city to wean itself from its main revenue source: excavation taxes from a dwindling quarry industry.

But it was clear from the onset of Monday night's meeting that four of the five council members had decided to oppose the casino and no longer wanted to hear the additional information they had requested from the card club developers.

Councilman Barbosa abstained from the 4-0 vote to reject the casino. He said later that he refused to be bullied by casino opponents who, he says, insisted for political reasons that the council take a stand on the issue even though the vote will have no bearing on the proposed development.

"This is an issue for the voters to decide," he said.

He said he has not made up his mind whether he supports the card club. On one hand, he said, it is a legitimate source of income for the city. But he must do some soul-searching, he said, before deciding whether it is morally correct.

"This is a political hot potato--we expected this," Meczka said of the council's vote to reject his proposed card club.

Meczka, who owns Los Angeles-based Meczka Marketing, which specializes in local and international gambling, and co-developer Frank Santin, a Scottsdale, Ariz., gaming consultant, say they have commissioned an informal survey of residents showing their card club proposal has widespread support. They declined to release the results, however.

Several citizens who spoke at Monday's council meeting said residents wanted the council to take a position on the card club--either for or against--even though the council cannot stop the backers from building and operating a casino if voters approve it.

However, the casino developers would still need to come back to the council for permits that would affect many aspects of the operation, such as permitted hours of operation and parking.

As it has several times over the last 40 years, the issue of whether the city should permit a card club has divided residents.

Council members say they have been contacted by many of their constituents since the casino backers announced their plans in July by asking the city to permit an election in which voters could decide whether to allow the card club.

In such clubs, players gamble against each other--not against the house, as they would in Las Vegas. The club makes its money through an hourly charge that players pay for a seat in the house, as well as food and beverage sales.

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