NOT EVEN three months ago, Felix G. Arroyo, John R. Connolly, Stephen J. Murphy, and Ayanna S. Pressley won reelection to the City Council promising to be independent voices, willing to stand up to the mayor when necessary. The way those councilors handle a contentious proposal to build a casino in East Boston will be a test of whether they’re making good on that pledge.
The plans taking shape at the Suffolk Downs racetrack have the strong backing of Mayor Menino, who views a casino as a source of jobs and economic growth. Menino wants as few obstacles as possible. But under the state’s new casino law, the City Council can call a citywide referendum on whether to allow a casino - if councilors have the stomach to defy the mayor.
The whole city deserves a vote, and it’s especially important for the at-large councilors, who so recently trumpeted their independence from Menino and whose job is to represent all Boston residents, to step up to ensure one. They shouldn’t be placated by the casino commission the mayor announced Tuesday to gather public input; the mayor’s spokeswoman said considering a citywide referendum probably wouldn’t be part of the commission’s role.
The arguments against a citywide vote are far from convincing. The mayor supports confining the vote to East Boston because he believes that only that neighborhood would see an impact, so the rest of city should butt out. But even while agreeing that only East Boston would be affected, casino backers are also touting a Suffolk Downs gambling palace as a boon to the whole city. It can’t be both. Every Boston resident - that is, every constituent of the city’s at-large councilors - would share the costs of the extra burdens on police, fire, and social services.
Finally, everyone in Boston has a stake in the city’s integrity. One of the fundamental worries about legalized gambling has always been the effect it will have on government, regardless of which ward it’s located in. Reasonable people can disagree about whether casino gambling is moral, or whether the economic benefits are worth the social costs. And they should also be able to parse the evidence suggesting that casino gambling breeds political corruption.
The most compelling argument for giving Boston residents a vote is to determine if residents believe the benefits in jobs, tax revenues, and entertainment outweigh the perceived risks. The only people who can make that referendum happen are the members of the City Council. As the casino deliberations unfold, councilors should make their voice heard on the plans. But the most important statement they can make would be to ensure that their constituents get a say, too.