Mayor Marty Walsh spent last week bashing James F. McHugh, one of the state gaming regulators, alleging the retired state judge was biased against Boston in the gaming commission’s deliberations on a Greater Boston casino license. In the end, though, McHugh may have saved Walsh’s bacon by forcing Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn to agree to a stronger traffic plan in Sullivan Square than Walsh was able to negotiate himself.
In voting to award the license, the commission insisted on conditions that will force Wynn to pay $56 million toward Sullivan Square improvements, and also up to $20 million in fines if the traffic around his planned Everett casino exceeds his projections. In deliberations, it was McHugh, a Charlestown resident, who emerged as the strongest critic of Wynn’s traffic and architectural plans. He ended up as the sole commissioner supporting the rival proposal in Revere, after the other three members of the panel resisted his call to double the potential traffic-mitigation fees.
Under the casino law, casinos and nearby cities were supposed to hash out all those details themselves rather than leave them up to the gaming commission. But Walsh never clicked with Wynn’s team. Boston didn’t sign a surrounding-community agreement with Wynn, and the mayor refused to participate in an arbitration process set up under the 2011 casino law. The main sticking point was that Walsh seemed adamant on getting the same kind of agreement from Wynn as the rich deal, worth more than $18 million a year, that the city signed with Mohegan Sun, the rival applicant at Suffolk Downs racetrack.
Under the law, though, the community mitigation packages weren’t intended just as payouts. They’re supposed to mitigate actual impacts; there’s no obvious reason why a casino in Everett should have to pay as much to Boston as a casino in Revere, since the impacts are bound to be different in different locations.
And it would have been easy for the commission to leave Walsh in the lurch: The Wynn plan was judged better in most of the commission’s evaluation categories, meaning the commissioners would have been hard-pressed to reject it. That would have left Walsh vulnerable to the accusation that he took a gamble by walking out of negotiations with Wynn, and left his constituents to suffer the consequences.
The decision is sure to anger many Charlestown residents, and Walsh can still try to throw up obstacles the plan. But for all his accusations that the commission has skirted the law, his actions speak louder than words: The mayor hasn’t gone to court with his allegations, and he surely knows he’d have a weak case. Walsh may still not be happy with the commission’s verdict, but he’s lucky the commissioners saved him from total embarrassment.
Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misidentified the office formerly held by commission member James F. McHugh.