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1st District Court of Appeal hears arguments in Gretna slots case

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The 1st District Court of Appeal on Wednesday afternoon heard arguments from plaintiffs seeking to overturn an opinion issued by Attorney General Pam Bondi invalidating the results of a 2012 Gadsden County referendum to allow slot machines to operate at a horse-racing facility in Gretna. An attorney from Bondi’s office defended the opinion.

Attorney Marc Dunbar serves as legal counsel to Gretna Creek Entertainment and represented it before the court.

He took to task, among other things, flawed grammar on the part of the AG’s office in what Dunbar says is a willful misinterpretation of a state law that limits slots licenses.

The language at issue was a limit in state statute “held pursuant to a statutory or constitutional authorization after the effective date of this section.”

“For all those grammar nerds out there, they’ll know that that is adverbial modifier: it has to modify a verb, not a noun. In this instance, it modifies ‘held.’ What the Attorney General would like is for it to modify the word ‘authorization.'”

“The question for this court was whether the Legislature had to come back and authorize Gadsden County to hold this referendum. Gadsden County’s position and our position is that home rule authority always allows them to have that referendum if their county commission votes for it.”

A representative from Bondi’s office, lead counsel on gaming and Seminole Indian relations attorney Jonathan Glogau, argued before the court that Gretna Gaming did not meet the definition of an “eligible facility” under state statute because the referendum took place after the law took effect.

Therefore, the state’s case proceeded, the 2012 county-wide vote — in which more than 62 percent of voters said ‘Yes’ to the approval of a new slot machines license for the facility — was “non-binding,” and could not be enforced.

The Attorney General’s opinion, should it stand, would likely require advocates for the referendum to first secure approval by the Legislature before holding yet another vote on the issue.

But Gadsden elected officials said that would place an unnecessary burden on taxpayers and the public at large.

“Three years is long enough,” said Greta City Commissioner Clarence Jackson in a statement. “It’s time to let Gadsden County residents to move forward with the opportunities and economic development they clearly cast their vote in support of.”

State Rep. Alan Williams — who represents both urban Tallahassee and Gadsden County in the statehouse — was on hand at the courthouse near the Southwood neighborhood, in solidarity with the plaintiffs.

When asked about the potential adverse effects if the court allows the Attorney General’s opinion to stand, Williams said the implications could be major.

“In a community that in a lot of ways gets left behind in the shadow of the state Capitol, this decision that hopefully comes down from the 1st DCA could go a long way for Gadsden. You’re talking about a quarter-of-a-billion-dollar investment that’s ready to come into Gadsden.”

“That would not only change how Gadsden is looked at on the map, but it would change the economic vitality of a community. This is not about gaming versus not-gaming, this is about economic development.”

A decision can be expected to come down in the case in as little as a few weeks or as much as six months, according to sources familiar with the proceedings.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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