Town folds on gambling bylaw

Mayor Glenn Witherspoon gave his word but council didn’t pass a bylaw Monday night prohibiting casinos, including charitable gaming clubs, inside town limits.
That has the Fort Frances Ministerial Association going back to its membership next month to decide what to do next–and chairwoman Rev. Mary Whitson noted it might include going to the public to put pressure on council.
Council will have to vote on this issue at some point, Hillary Stauth, press secretary to Management Board chairman Chris Hodgson, said yesterday.
She noted the province has said all along that it would not force a community to house one of the 44 charitable gaming casinos slated to go up across the province.
In two plebiscites held during last November’s municipal election, voters overwhelmingly opposed having video lottery terminals (2,382-811) and charitable gaming casinos (2,258-947) within town limits.
But the plebiscites are not legally binding.
“It’s up to council to decide whether or not it wants a charitable casino,” Stauth said yesterday, noting many of the designated communities were holding hearings to get public input before a vote (although those hearings are not mandated by the province).
“They have to decide for themselves and most councils decide by having hearings and voting,” she stressed, adding if there wasn’t a vote, then technically there wasn’t anything that would prohibit one from opening here.
That vote is what Rev. Whitson and Jeraldine Bjornson, of Knox United Church here, asked council to take Monday night.
“We were hoping [council would] although we realize that it is almost the policy of this council to be reactive rather than proactive,” Rev. Whitson charged yesterday, noting people were wondering what guarantee there was that a charitable gambling casino would not be set up here.
Bjornson noted that after the votes were tallied last November, the ministerial association looked forward to action by council.
“We’re still waiting,” she told councillors Monday night.
On April 9, though, the province set new policy for the charitable casinos, including replacing VLTs with slot machines. Stauth noted many councils decided any previous plebiscites were on a different policy.
Mayor Witherspoon argued even if the town passed a bylaw, the provincial government could pass legislation that would allow a charitable gaming casino to set up shop here.
And future councils could rescind the bylaw, he added.
“You have the assurance of this council that we will not do anything to prejudice the results of the plebiscite,” the mayor assured, with no councillors making any comments on the issue.
“[But] in regards to a bylaw, we have not discussed it at any length or depth,” he added, noting it might be discussed at future meetings.
No dates for that discussion have been set. And while the ministerial association report was received, it was not referred to any of the town’s executive committees for a recommendation.
But Rev. Whitson feared without formal action by council, the town would have no barriers to keep the charitable gaming casino slated for this area out.
And Bjornson charged the province was doing an “image makeover” on gambling to convince people it was good–without any evidence to support their claim. She warned casinos could lead to social, economic, and ethical costs on the community.
“If governments are actively involved in attempting to corrupt you, you have essential philosophical problems,” she said. “The state is the organizer of, and profiteer, from gambling. The state funding the public good by corrupting the citizens.”
The province estimates charities’ earnings from casinos could top $200 million, with the province to rake in another $460 million. Stauth said those dollars would go to priority programs, such as health care.
But Bjornson condemned the use of a portion of gambling revenue for essential social services.
“[It] violates the principle of commitment for the common responsibility for the common good from the common wealth,” she noted. “In effect, we are privatizing the funding for community services, taking it from the taxpayers . . . and placing it on gamblers.”
“Certainly the businesses should be concerned,” Rev. Whitson added, noting they would feel the loss of family income.
If it didn’t pass a bylaw, the association asked council to at least do an independent public review of the social and economic impact gambling would have on the community.
“And that the results of such a study be shared with the citizens of the community,” Bjornson added.
Meanwhile, there was a time in recent history when Fort Frances actually was lobbying for a casino here. CAO Bill Naturkach said the town sent a proposal for a “traditional” casino to the then NDP provincial government in November, 1992.
“‘Charitable’ didn’t come on board until the Harris government,” he added, noting there was local support back then.
The “casino committee,” made up of Mayor Witherspoon, Coun. Arlene Georgeson, Naturkach, Frank Myers, Jack Murray, John Chan, and Jim Brow, had garnered support from the town, local Police Services Board, Economic Development Commission, Northern Ontario Municipal Association, Sunset Country Snowmobile Club, Lake of the Woods Parkway Association, and Fort Frances Chamber of Commerce.