October 25, 2010

Racino foes: Officials seek to control meeting

Critics claim Biddeford's mayor and councilors want to dominate tonight's racino forum.

By Melanie Creamer mcreamer@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A political action committee that opposes a racino in Biddeford wants a judge to prevent Mayor Joanne Twomey and the City Council from controlling or interrupting a special meeting scheduled for tonight about a proposed racino.

Citizens Against a Bad Deal filed a complaint and request for preliminary injunction late Friday in York County Superior Court.

The group is seeking a hearing today on its contention that Twomey and the council are controlling public debate on Biddeford Downs, a $125 million proposal to move Scarborough Downs here and build a hotel complex with slot machines.

Twomey and a council majority voted to support the project on Sept. 29 -- after a closed-door meeting with racetrack officials that critics argue was illegal. Voters will decide whether to back the project on Nov. 2.

Critics submitted a petition last week that forced the council to schedule a "general meeting" tonight at which the group can make arguments in opposition.

Ericka Wainburg, spokeswoman for the opponents, said the critics group is concerned because Twomey is an ardent racino supporter who has indicated that she will moderate the meeting at 6 tonight at Biddeford City Hall.

"It's corporate money and corporate interests being jammed down the throats of residents without proper notice," Wainburg said.

Twomey said she would listen to the anti-racino presentation. She said if backers of the proposal want to speak on the issue, it's their right.

"The charter doesn't allow them to sit up and run the meeting," Twomey said of the complaint. "I'm the mayor. We have a council. They are screaming their rights are violated, yet they don't want the 'yes' people to speak at the meeting."

Scarborough Downs and its partner, hotel operator and developer Ocean Properties, want to build the complex on a city-owned site near Biddeford's border with Arundel.

The proposal calls for a racetrack and grandstand, as many as 1,500 slot machines, an entertainment complex and a 200-room hotel.

A public forum was held Oct. 4 that drew more than 150 people to Biddeford City Theater, a city-owned building attached to City Hall.

The complaint contends that city officials gave backers of the gambling referendum special treatment at the meeting, where they made an elaborate presentation favoring the referendum.

The complaint says the city has replayed the video of the forum at least 22 times on the city's public access channel.

Tim Shannon, a lawyer who represents Citizens Against a Bad Deal, said the city's opening of the theater and paying $3,000 for a moderator for the Oct. 4 forum "runs afoul of the First Amendment." He said if the mayor and City Council interrupt tonight's presentation, they will be violating the charter.

"The city has made public space available and spent money to support the airing of one viewpoint, the pro-gambling view," he said. "We think that's not right. It violates (critics') First Amendment rights. We have tried at various times to get our side heard, and the mayor and City Council have repeatedly resisted."

City Manager John Bubier said he was confused by the legal action. He said no one has been denied the right to ask questions and noted that the council scheduled tonight's meeting as requested under the critics' petition.

"They can have the floor," Bubier said. "Once they have said they are done, the floor is open for questions from anyone."

The last time a general meeting was called under the charter was in 2007. Twomey, who was not then the mayor, was allowed to give a presentation on recycling as part of an issue involving the Maine Energy Recovery Co. waste incinerator.

J.D. Hadiaris, a lawyer representing the city on the racino case, said the complaint lacks merit. He noted that city officials agreed to hold the meeting tonight and made the City Theater available to the group Tuesday night.

"We think it's a moot point because of the two opportunities the group has to speak," he said.

 

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at: mcreamer@pressherald.com

 

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