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Walsh questions power of gambling panel in dispute

Stephen Crosby (left), the head of the state gambling commission, and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh.

Globe File

Stephen Crosby (left), the head of the state gambling commission, and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh is doubling down on his assertion that the city of Boston has the power to decide the fate of two casino proposals on its borders, and rejecting the authority of the state gambling commission to rule otherwise.

The city declared last week that under the 2011 casino law it is a host community to a Wynn Resorts casino plan in Everett and a Mohegan Sun casino proposal at Suffolk Downs in Revere, the thoroughbred racetrack that straddles the East Boston-Revere city line. If Walsh gets his way, the Charlestown neighborhood would win the right to vote on the Wynn project, and East Boston voters would decide the future of Mohegan Sun’s plan.

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The commission, in response, tentatively planned a formal hearing next week to review Boston’s assertions.

But Walsh now says that the city’s declarations that it is a host community were not an invitation for the commission to get involved in the matter.

“To the contrary,” Thomas Frongillo, a lawyer representing the city, wrote in a follow-up letter Tuesday, “there is a significant preliminary legal question concerning whether the commission has jurisdiction to decide the issue of Boston’s host community status.

“Although the commission has apparently determined that it has jurisdiction, it cites no authority . . . to the effect that the Legislature has specifically so empowered it,” Frongillo wrote.

Walsh’s administration further assets that while state law empowers the commission to determine if a municipality qualifies for the lesser designation of “surrounding community” to a casino proposal, “the gaming act . . . contains no provision addressing how disputes concerning a municipality’s host status shall be resolved.”

State law and regulations “allow the city to determine its status as a host community,” the administration said, adding that it considers the commission’s notices of a hearing on the subject “to be invalid.”

If Walsh’s assertions hold, both casino projects would be in jeopardy. As mayor of a host community, Walsh could demand millions of dollars in compensation from each developer just to permit the projects to come to a vote.

Neither proposal would be likely to survive a neighborhood referendum in Boston, which would leave the region with no valid applicants for the state’s most lucrative gambling license.

Commissioners insisted Wednesday that the casino law gives them “clear and broad authority to make the necessary decisions on all matters regarding the interpretation and implementation of the expanded gaming statute.” In a statement, the five-member panel cited a section of state law which reads: “The power and authority granted to the commission shall be construed as broadly as necessary for the implementation, administration, and enforcement” of the casino law.

Where the dispute goes next is unknown. The commission has canceled its tentative plans for a hearing next week reviewing Boston’s host community assertions.

In the meantime, the panel “is reviewing the latest correspondence from the city of Boston and . . . considering the proper way to proceed,” the commission said.

The commission had hoped to grant the Greater Boston resort casino license by June, and it remains to be seen if the host community dispute will delay the award.

“We will take the time necessary to ensure that all parties have a fair and appropriate opportunity to present their points of view,” the commission said.

Clyde Barrow, a University of Massachusetts Dartmouth casino specialist, said the power to settle host community disputes “was left completely unresolved in the legislation.” The disagreement between Walsh and the commission could go to court if it cannot be solved by negotiations, he said.

In nearly all cases around the state, casino host community rights have gone unquestioned.

State casino law defines a host community as “a municipality in which a gaming establishment is located” or proposed. A “gaming establishment,” under the law, is “a gaming area and any other nongaming structure related to the gaming area and may include, but shall not be limited to, hotels, restaurants, or other amenities.”

Walsh has said that both casino projects depend on Boston’s airport, bus and rail service, harbor tunnels, roadways, and other means of transportation, and that the city of Boston is “a key selling point” of each project.

The mayor also says that access to the Wynn development site is over a private way in Boston and that the Mohegan Sun proposal is “intimately related and cannot be disentangled from the Suffolk Downs site,” most of which lies on the East Boston side of the Boston-Revere city line.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at Mark.Arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.
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