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City Council approves East Boston-only casino vote

East Boston voters will decide the fate of casino plans at the Suffolk Downs racetrack.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2012

East Boston voters will decide the fate of casino plans at the Suffolk Downs racetrack.

East Boston alone will decide the fate of casino plans at the Suffolk Downs racetrack, after the Boston City Council overwhelmingly rebuffed calls Wednesday to hold a citywide referendum on the gambling proposal.

In voting to schedule a vote only in East Boston, the majority of the council said that the people most affected by the plans should be the ones to decide the issue.

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“What if the whole city votes to support this casino, and East Boston votes no?” asked Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, who represents East Boston, urging his fellow councilors to support a ward-only vote.

Under the 2011 state casino law, the state’s largest cities — Springfield, Worcester, and Boston — have the option of holding a citywide casino referendum, as Springfield did in July with an MGM proposal, or limiting the vote to the ward in which a casino has been proposed.

Those advocating a citywide vote argued that a casino would have profound affect on the entire city and not just on East Boston.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino has long been on record in favor of a ward-only vote.

Suffolk Downs officials said Wednesday that the East Boston-only vote was the right decision.

“The mayoral election results in Boston are indicative of the way people feel about the issue,” said Chip Tuttle, Suffolk Downs chief operating officer, speaking of Tuesday’s preliminary election. “If you look around the city, the candidates who took anticasino positions didn’t seem to do very well at all. And a lot of the candidates who were for an East Boston-only question — candidates who affirmed their support of our development — seemed to do very well. That’s indicative of the support that this proposal has around the city.”

Mayoral candidate Bill Walczak made opposition to the casino a central message of his campaign. Daniel F. Conley, the Suffolk district attorney, campaigned hard on expanding the vote citywide. Neither qualified for the final election.

Looking deeper into the results, Walczak, by far the most vocal anticasino candidate, received about 7 percent of the vote in East Boston. Though 7 percent represents roughly twice Walczak’s citywide support, the results left him well back of the frontrunners within the neighborhood, and indicate he did not tap a groundswell of anticasino sentiment.

Also, in the District 1 council race, which includes East Boston, procasino incumbent LaMattina trounced two anticasino challengers, Brian Gannon and John Ribeiro. Gannon and LaMattina will move on to compete in the November final election.

Stonehill College political scientist Peter Ubertaccio cautioned against reading too much into the results. Though Walczak stood firmly against a Suffolk Downs gambling resort, he was “not the most visible candidate,” in the enormous 12-person mayoral field, said Ubertaccio. “It may well be that a candidate with greater depth of support who took that position may have been able to rally” more casino opponents.

In the local council race, LaMattina would normally be expected to soundly beat two lesser-known candidates. “It is hard to separate his general incumbent advantage” from the casino issue, Ubertaccio said.

The casino referendum is Nov. 5, the day of the Boston municipal final election.

Councilor Matt O’Malley cast his vote against the East Boston-only option after a series of counterproposals he brought forth failed to win support.

First, O’Malley proposed a hybrid option, under which the entire city would vote on the casino but East Boston would hold veto power. Under that option, if the citywide vote turned out in favor of a casino but East Boston voted against the casino, the plans would be scrapped.

Council President Stephen Murphy shot down that proposal, calling it “illegal” because the state law allows for either a ward-only vote or a citywide vote, not a combination, he said.

O’Malley attempted to override Murphy’s ruling, but the majority of the council agreed that the hybrid option did not pass legal muster.

Next, O’Malley put forth a motion to hold a citywide vote, a proposal also backed by councilors Tito Jackson and Charles Yancey.

The casino “has obvious cons when it comes to the very real social costs,” Jackson said as he addressed the council body. “This is something that will affect the city of Boston as a whole.”

But the three councilors were ultimately outvoted 10 to 3, as several other members of the council rose to speak in support of an East Boston-only vote.

East Boston residents “are going to feel it, they’re going to wear it, and they should vote on it one way or another,” Councilor Bill Linehan said.

Councilor at Large John R. Connolly, who on Tuesday won one of two spots on the final mayoral ballot, was present for the casino vote and, as he promised during the campaign, supported an East Boston-only referendum.

Suffolk Downs is competing for the sole Greater Boston casino resort license. The other competitors are a Wynn Resorts project in Everett and a Foxwoods proposal in Milford.

The state gambling commission expects to award the license in early 2014.

Wesley Lowery can be reached at wesley.lowery@globe.com. Mark Arsenault can be reached atMark.Arsenault@globe.com.
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