One topic consumed the Boston City Council for hours on Friday: Should East Boston alone vote on a Suffolk Downs casino plan or should the entire city have a say?
“East Boston is an island,” said Council President Stephen J. Murphy, advocating at a public hearing for an East Boston-only vote. “You get there by tunnel or bridge.” It would be “ludicrous,” he said, for residents of faraway neighborhoods to claim they would be affected by a casino in East Boston.
On the other side of the issue, Councilor Matt O’Malley said that while East Boston would probably be the neighborhood most affected by a Suffolk Downs casino, “this is something that would affect the [entire] city, and every citizen should have the opportunity to weigh in.”
Coming four days before the mayoral preliminary election, the more than three-hour hearing drew long comments from councilors, candidates for mayor, and councilors who are candidates for mayor.
No casino project can win a license in Massachusetts unless the voters of the host community endorse the project at a referendum. In most cities and towns, the vote must be community-wide. However, state law allows the state’s largest cities — Worcester, Springfield, and Boston — to choose between holding a citywide vote or a vote only in the ward in which the casino project would be located.
The city of Springfield, held a citywide referendum in July on an MGM casino project, which voters approved.
In Boston, Mayor Thomas M. Menino favors a ward-only vote, arguing that the people most affected by the project should be the ones who decide if it will move forward to the final stage of the competition for a state casino license.
Recent polls suggest that a majority of Bostonians want a citywide vote, though most councilors who gave opinions on the issue Friday favored an East Boston-only referendum.
Suffolk Downs, with casino partner Caesars Entertainment, is competing for the sole Greater Boston casino license with Wynn Resorts, which has proposed a gambling resort just over the Boston city line in Everett, and with a Foxwoods project in Milford.
Councilor Rob Consalvo and Councilor at Large Felix G. Arroyo, both mayoral candidates, said they support a ward-only vote. Another councilor looking to move up to mayor, Michael P. Ross, said he does not like casinos but is concerned that if Boston were to turn down Suffolk Downs, Wynn would get the license and “there will be one 7 feet from the border of Charlestown.” Councilor at Large John R. Connolly, also pursuing the mayor’s job, asked a long series of questions at the hearing about the developer’s proposal, including questions about jobs and traffic plans.
During the public comment period, mayoral candidates Daniel F. Conley and Bill Walczak each offered support for a citywide vote.
Several East Boston residents urged councilors to let the neighborhood decide. Few spoke as passionately as Tom Tassinari, who implored the officials: “Leave the vote to us. It belongs to us. We know what is good for us.”
Suffolk Downs has requested a referendum on the project be held Nov. 5, the date of the final election in the mayor’s race.
The council will decide Wednesday if it will grant the Nov. 5 date and whether the casino vote will be citywide or stay within East Boston, said Murphy.