Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Brandon voters ignored in drive for casino

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BRANDON -- In a city that has twice voted against a casino in the past decade, why would its city council be pushing ahead with plans for a casino?

That's the question many Brandonites have been asking themselves following the announcement in mid-May the city has entered into a partnership with Tribal Councils Investment Group -- a business organization representing almost all of Manitoba's First Nations -- for the purpose of building a casino in Brandon.

A strong casino supporter, Mayor Shari Decter Hirst refuses to call a third plebiscite on the issue. "We don't have plebiscites on whether Maple Leaf is coming to Brandon, or whether the Royal Bank should expand its facilities on 18th Street," she argues. "This is a business decision."

Though Decter Hirst has assured Brandonites the casino issue would be dealt with at the council table, the casino partnership was announced without prior public discussion or vote by city council. It is not the only issue to be managed in such a murky manner by Brandon's elected representatives.

Over the past several months, a number of important initiatives -- including unbudgeted spending commitments totaling millions of dollars -- have been announced by the city without any prior public discussion or vote at the council table.

Each of those announcements raise serious questions about transparency, accountability and compliance with provincial laws relating to the manner in which municipal affairs are to be conducted.

The casino partnership is the most troubling, however, because it defies the twice-spoken will of the public.

Adding to that concern is a new downtown development plan adopted by council a few months ago which reduces the likelihood the casino issue will ever be discussed at a public council meeting. The new plan implicitly makes a casino a permitted use in the downtown's new "entertainment and shopping district," meaning no re-zoning application would be necessary for a casino to be constructed in that area. Not coincidentally, there is a large parcel of city-owned land in the area that will soon be available for development.

As a matter of political tactics, the strategy earns high marks for expediency -- it is a scheme that seeks to accomplish its objective by stealth, while minimizing public dissent. It loses far more marks, however, for its reckless short-sightedness.

"They just don't seem to understand what 'No' is," says pastor John Reaves, a leader of the anti-casino campaign in 2008. "Anyone that tries to force this, it's political suicide."

Reaves is alluding to the fact the next municipal election is only two years away. Decter Hirst and the 10 councillors might be facing an angry electorate at a point in time when the casino can still be derailed by a new, anti-casino council.

Another factor to consider is the casino plan must be endorsed by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs -- something that is far from guaranteed.

Indeed, Chief David Crate, the chair of the AMC gaming committee, told the Brandon Sun "This was not an election promise, or platform of Mayor Shari Decter Hirst. Now to state that 'the Brandon voters will not face a third casino plebiscite as it will now be a decision at the city council table' seems improper."

What if Premier Greg Selinger is less willing to defy the plebiscite results and refuses to authorize the issuance of a casino licence for Brandon? He may not be prepared to risk Brandon East, the only NDP-held riding in Westman, on such an unpopular scheme.

It is difficult to see how this gambit ends well for Brandon's mayor and council. They have taken a huge political risk, betting their political futures on a controversial scheme that seeks to deliver a result that voters have twice rejected.

They might be the next thing Brandon voters reject.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2012 A12

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