Pope County, Arkansas Locals Allege Back-Room Dealings on Casino Applications

  • Pope County required to allow voters to weigh in on casino operator decisions
  • County officials allegedly held secret, unscheduled meetings to discuss casino applicants
  • Residents and one county official have filed affidavit in protest
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Pope County residents have filed an affidavit in protest of alleged secret meetings held by county officials to discuss casino applicants before the public hearing.

Residents file complaint

A number of locals filed a complaint on Monday with the Pope County, Arkansas county prosecutor, stating that dealings regarding casino operator applications have been going on behind closed doors.

The complaint was filed a day before a scheduled public hearing to hear bid proposals.

The complaint was filed a day before a scheduled public hearing to hear bid proposals. A member of the Pope County Quorum Court, Justice of the Peace Joseph Pearson, was among the eight people who signed the affidavit.

In Arkansas, a Quorum Court is essentially the same as a county board in other states and is tasked with legislative responsibilities. Members, called Justices of the Peace (JPs), are elected to the Quorum. Despite their name, JPs have no judicial power; they are county commissioners. The county administrator, the person who heads the Quorum, is called the county judge. That position also does not have actual judicial authority.

The affidavit was filed by Hans Stiritz on behalf of Concerned Citizens of Pope County, a group opposed to casinos. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Stiritz and others describe three unscheduled “illegal” meetings of the Quorum Court dating back to May. Stiritz said the outcome was

a closed-door decision to award a letter of support to a casino operator absent (sic) the public discussion.”

County official speaks of secret meetings

The three secret meetings were allegedly held on May 7, August 1, and August 6. Pearson said that fellow JP Ernie Enchelmayer called him on May 6 to invite him to a meeting the next day. Confused, Pearson asked resident Anna Stiritz to call the Pope County clerk’s office to check the date of the next meeting. She was told it was scheduled for June, not May 7.

Pearson told other county residents about the new meeting. When he arrived, he found that some other JPs, County Judge Ben Cross, and residents were already there.

In what sounded like a contentious meeting, the JPs discussed the casino “with the citizens present while everyone ate,” according to Pearson.

Contradictions exposed

One problem with the meeting, aside from it not being on the calendar and most of the public not knowing about it in advance, was that the Quorum Court allegedly told the people that the Court could select a casino itself.

When casinos were legalized by a state vote in November 2018, Pope County went against the amendment. This happened despite it reading that the county would get one of the four possible casinos. Instead, an ordinance was passed that mandated the county government to get voter approval for whichever casino proposal it preferred. This goes contrary to what the Quorum Court said in the May 7 meeting.

Other Justices of the Peace opted to not attend the May 7 and August 1 meetings as they believed that doing so would go against county rules.

“I wouldn’t have gone if I had been invited because it would have violated the Freedom of Information Act,” JP Bill Sparks told the Democrat-Gazette.

Meetings directly involving casino bidders

Hans Stiritz said that the August 1 meeting, hosted by Cherokee Nation Business, “resulted in an agreement for a majority of the Quorum Court to issue an exclusive letter of support to the Cherokee Nation to launch their casino gaming operation.”

The 2018 Amendment does say that support from local officials is required, but it does not specify when they have to be in office.

The August 6 meeting was allegedly with representatives of the Gulfside Casino Partnership. Gulfside was given two recommendation letters by JPs before they left office in December. However, its casino application was later rejected by the state Racing Commission because the letters were not from JPs who were in office at the time of application.

The 2018 Amendment does say that support from local officials is required, but it does not specify when they have to be in office.

Pearson was told by another JP that the meeting was about a possible lawsuit by Gulfside.

In the meantime, multiple casino applicants have said they were told on Saturday that an operator – supposedly Cherokee Nation Business in partnership with Legends – was already chosen by the Quorum Court before any public hearings for the proposals were held.

Cherokee and Legends unveiled their plans for a $225 million Legends Resort & Casino on Monday.