WHEN THE Legislature was considering a 2011 bill to legalize casinos in Massachusetts, state Senator Karen Spilka proposed an amendment that might have headed off a lot of the difficulties in Boston over the state’s casino licensing process. Recognizing that noise, traffic, and crime associated with casinos can easily cross municipal boundaries, she suggested that any community within three miles of a proposed casino — and not just the geographic host community — should have to approve it.
But lawmakers rejected her amendment. Both the Senate and the House, including then-state Representative Marty Walsh, voted to approve legislation without any veto for neighboring cities and towns.
Fast-forward a few years, and the limitations and loopholes in the community-approval process were just a few of the reasons that many critics of the casino law hoped for its repeal in last November’s referendum. A better law would have anticipated the situation that unfolded in Boston: Both of the final casino plans were perched right on Boston’s city limits, where they could gain access to the Boston market without having to secure permission from its residents.
Yet the electorate saw matters differently. The repeal referendum failed, by a wide margin, in the city of Boston and statewide. Warts and all, the 2011 casino law now has voters’ explicit backing.
Against that backdrop, Mayor Walsh has continued his legal quest to thwart the winning casino proposal in Everett, just across the border from Boston. He has said residents of Charlestown, who will be directly affected by the casino, should have a vote on whether to allow one.
He’s right. The casino law that Walsh voted for as a legislator should have guaranteed such a vote. But it didn’t.
No amount of lawyering is going to change that fact now. Yet the city has spent more than $1 million in taxpayer money on an effort to convince a judge to ignore the plain language and legislative history of the casino law.
The city has tried to argue that since Boston provides the only roadway access to the Everett casino site, it should be considered a host community entitled to a vote. Further, it throws a kitchen-sink-worth of accusations at the state Gaming Commission, asserting that it refused to recognize the city as a host community with voting rights only because of corrupt bias against Boston. The city wants the Everett casino license thrown out, the application process restarted, and the gaming commissioners barred from participating in the reissuing of the license.
The state judge hearing the case, Janet Sanders, seems skeptical. The casino law specifically addressed the question of whether providing access to a site made a community a host — and said that it did not. At a hearing last month, Sanders pointed to a map of the casino, all of which would be located in Everett, and pondered whether there was really anything else for her to consider. The city’s corruption allegations, meanwhile, are highly speculative. Even if any of the allegations panned out — and so far none have — none of them would change the law. Or the map.
Sanders’ ruling on the commission’s motion to dismiss the city’s lawsuit is expected soon.
But, just as that case nears a possible end, the city has filed another suit, this one alleging a defective environmental review of the project. The suit looks like more of the same, and promises more taxpayer money going to lawyers arguing a long shot.
It’s no longer possible to justify those expenditures as in the public interest. There’s too little chance of success, and too little clarity about what Walsh would even consider success. The problems are in the law itself, not its implementation, and the city’s substantial legal fees would be better directed to other civic purposes.
Skeptics of the Everett casino say that even if the mayor’s suit fails, he’s creating some leverage against the casino developer, Steve Wynn, and showing that the city can give him a lot of trouble.
But leverage to accomplish what, exactly?
It’s not credible to imagine that Walsh would only settle for a vote in Charlestown. After all, last year the mayor agreed to a casino on the Revere side of Suffolk Downs without a referendum in East Boston. Clearly, the city had a price then, and it did not involve residents voting. So what’s Walsh after now?
The law says that casinos in Massachusetts need to provide money to mitigate impacts in surrounding communities, such as additional burdens on police or roads. Boston refused to participate in the process to determine what the Boston impacts from the Everett casino would be, so the Gaming Commission analyzed those impacts instead, and then required Wynn to fund them.
As a result, Wynn will have to make payments to Boston, including millions of dollars for short-term improvements to Sullivan Square. He’ll also have to contribute $25 million for a long-term traffic overhaul, though it’s up to a state-led task force to figure out how to spend that money.
Walsh has said the casino would be incompatible with the city’s long-term vision in Sullivan Square. But if that’s Walsh’s concern, the city could simply refuse the $25 million and proceed with its own plans. One would imagine that Wynn would be happy to have the money back.
If what Walsh wants is more money for the city, the litigation strategy is just not working. Instead, it’s costing taxpayers money, reducing Wynn’s incentive to cooperate with Boston, and alienating potential allies. The one body best positioned to help Walsh get more money or different plans from Wynn is the Gaming Commission — whose members can’t be too pleased to be on the receiving end of Walsh’s legal team’s attacks.
The truth is that Mayor Walsh doesn’t have much leverage over a casino in a different city — and that’s by design in the legislation Representative Walsh voted for. It’s time for the city to cut its losses and reach a mutually beneficial deal with Wynn — outside the courtroom.