Voter approved casino card game ban going?
LEWIS KAMB; Staff writer
Two months after a referendum to restrict gambling won majority support from voters, the Town of Ruston now appears to be folding its hand on a new law banning “house-banked” card games once played in the town’s only minicasino.
On Monday, the Town Council will consider repealing a new ordinance that took effect in the town of some 765 residents based on voter approval of a November ballot measure, according to a letter sent this week by the town’s attorney.
“The Town Council appears to be in the process of repealing (the gambling ordinance) in its entirety,” David Britton, legal counsel for Ruston, wrote in a letter to Fircrest lawyer Joan Mell, dated Dec. 28.
The letter, obtained by The News Tribune from Mell’s law firm, was sent in response to a lawsuit challenging the town’s new gambling restrictions. It was filed Dec. 13 by Mell’s client, Steve Fabre, owner of the Point Defiance Café and Casino on North Pearl Street.
According to Britton’s letter, a proposal to repeal the ordinance “should come on for first reading at the upcoming January 3 Council meeting.”
“I will contact you after the repeal goes through to see what your intentions are with regard to the lawsuit,” Britton added.
Britton, Ruston Mayor Bruce Hopkins and Councilman Jim Hedrick did not return telephone calls Thursday seeking comment.
While pleased the town appears to be backing down, Mell and Fabre said separately Thursday that the ordinance prohibiting house-banked social card games, such as Black Jack, never should have gotten this far.
“It’s great they’re reconsidering their position,” Mell said. “But of course, they made my client file a lawsuit before they decided to do that.”
Fabre’s lawsuit in part contends that Ruston holds no authority to place citizen referendums on the ballot or enact them.
State law “does not provide referendum power or authority to Towns,” he argued in a petition filed in Pierce County Superior Court. “Ruston is a Town that does not have referendum powers.”
While not offering an opinion specifically about the Ruston case, Katie Blinn, an attorney for the Secretary of State’s Office, agreed Thursday that certain Washington towns don’t have referendum authority.
Well before the town put the question before voters, Fabre said he warned Ruston’s mayor and various town officials about the matter.
“I sent a letter out to everybody in town before the election and explained to them this was another mistake they were making,” Fabre said.
In August, the five-member Ruston Town Council already had approved Ordinance 1316 “to prohibit house banked social card games within the Town of Ruston, subject to and contingent upon passage of a referendum to the voters of the town.”
The ordinance further stated that, if approved by voters, the law would take effect upon certification of the election results by the county auditor.
On Nov. 2, about 52 percent of voters approved the measure, with 184 ballots favoring it and 168 opposed.
Along with the claim Ruston has no referendum authority, the lawsuit contends the ordinance is legally flawed for several other reasons. Among them, it contends that state law allowing gambling only authorizes “cities and counties to absolutely prohibit any or all gambling activities.”
“The statute does not give any authority to Towns,” the suit contends.
Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Gambling Commission, declined Thursday to comment specifically about Fabre’s lawsuit. But she said several other small Washington municipalities – including Algona, Rainier, Clyde Hill and Yacolt – have enacted laws similar to Ruston’s to restrict gambling.
“This is the first time I’ve heard of anyone using that argument,” said Hunter, a 16-year commission employee.
It was unclear whether those communities have the same classification as Ruston.
Fabre’s suit is the latest in a series of legal actions he has brought against Ruston for what he considers the town’s malicious and illegal efforts to kill his gaming business over several years.
In 2010, a Pierce County judge struck down a Ruston gambling tax that Fabre said increased his payments by 400 percent. The judge found the Town Council didn’t follow its own rules for voting. (The town has yet to repeal the tax increase, Mell and Fabre said Thursday.)
Fabre, who also owns Cassidy’s Pub on Portland Avenue in Pierce County, bought the Point Defiance Café and Casino in 2003. He operated house-banked card games there until August 2008. At one point, the business employed 85 people, he said.
Now with four employees, the casino is largely a restaurant with a player-supported poker room. Even if the gambling ban is repealed, Fabre said he can’t immediately afford to restart casino-style card games.
After filing a claim for more than $9 million, Fabre has a separate damages suit pending against the town.
“I’ve been doing nothing but fighting Ruston for the past several years – and I’ve won every battle,” Fabre said. “But it’s crippled me financially.”
Lewis Kamb: 253-597-8542 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics