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editorial

Stephen Crosby recusal avoids reproach, but can casino board operate?

Stephen Crosby said in his statement that Commissioner Jim McHugh will act as chairman for the Eastern Massachusetts license deliberations.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/File

Stephen Crosby said in his statement that Commissioner Jim McHugh will act as chairman for the Eastern Massachusetts license deliberations.

State gaming commission Chairman Stephen P. Crosby’s decision to recuse himself from all matters connected with casino applications in Greater Boston leaves that panel with only four members participating in those critical votes, and calls into question whether the commission can continue to function effectively. Crosby should not be faulted for removing himself from a decision in which his impartiality had been called into question. But if the board proves unable to handle its complex job short-handed, Crosby will have little choice but to step aside and allow Governor Patrick to appoint a permanent replacement.

When he announced that he would not vote on the Greater Boston decision, Crosby said he still plans to participate in other commission business. But deciding whether to award the casino license to Suffolk Downs in Revere or Steve Wynn in Everett is by far the most important matter on the commission’s docket. The board has already awarded the slot parlor license; there is only one applicant for the license in Western Massachusetts; and the competition for the Southeastern Massachusetts license is just beginning. And with billions of dollars at stake, the selection process for Greater Boston must be beyond reproach.

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That, indeed, is why Crosby recused himself. His announcement Thursday followed months of criticism, some of which was unjustified. At various points, Crosby has been accused of showing bias both for Wynn and for Suffolk Downs. The last straw came when he made the ill-advised decision to attend an opening day party at Suffolk Downs last weekend; he went because the gaming commission also regulates horse racing, but attendees took the opportunity to press him on the track’s casino application. After the fact, at least, Crosby recognized it was a mistake. “My participation in the decision-making process has become a distraction and a potential threat to our critical appearance of total impartiality,” he wrote explaining his decision Thursday.

Yet impartiality isn’t the only thing the public expects from the commission. It also needs to function; the board needs three affirmative votes to award a license or make decisions, so operating with only four members increases the chances of gridlock. Additionally, the commissioners are all supposed to bring slightly different perspectives to the licensing process; some have financial expertise, others a law-enforcement background. Crosby, as chairman, was charged with evaluating big-picture concerns. In deciding whether Wynn, Suffolk Downs, or neither applicant deserves the Greater Boston license, the commission needs someone to fill that role.

Whether the commission can afford to lose its chairman on a key vote will become clear soon enough. In the meantime, what Crosby’s recent stumble really exposed was the bias inherent in the law itself: Governor Patrick chided the chairman for attending the party — but it was Patrick who signed a law putting the same person in charge of regulating horse racing at Suffolk Downs and deciding whether the track gets the casino license that it desperately wants.

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