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The Salem (Mass.) News: Keep slots discussion in Danvers open to the public

By David Olson, editorial board, The Salem News 

 The decision earlier this week by the gaming developer The Cordish Companies to pursue plans for a giant slots parlor somewhere in Massachusetts will certainly rekindle the debate in Danvers, one of the communities the company is considering as a location.

Let’s hope the town’s Board of Selectmen does a much better job of making the public a part of the conversation in the weeks to come. So far, the board seems more interested in secrecy than transparency. Earlier this month, selectmen met individually with Cordish officials so they wouldn’t be subject to the state’s Open Meeting Law, deliberately shielding themselves from public view on one of the most important issues to come before the town in decades.

Make no mistake, the stakes are huge.

Maryland-based Cordish is a serious player in the gaming business. Its affiliate, PPE Casino Resorts, laid out a nonrefundable $400,000 application fee for the chance to do business in Massachusetts. It has already developed Hard Rock-themed casinos in Hollywood and Tampa, Fla. It’s building a $500 million casino in Indianapolis and a $750 million resort casino in New York. Last year, the company opened a casino at the Arundel Mills Mall in Hanover, Md. Arundel Mills is owned by Simon Property Group, which also owns the Liberty Tree Mall.

The proposal for Danvers calls for a 24-hour-a-day, 1,250-machine slot parlor at the old Sports Authority site at Liberty Tree, next to Old Navy.

Danvers residents, understandably, have plenty of questions and concerns.

“When you live there and you understand the access in and out, you understand it (the traffic) would be like two days before Christmas,” Kimberly Donahue, a trustee of the nearby River Run condominiums, told selectmen at a meeting earlier this month. “And, to have the ambient light from 24/7 slot machines, and then you look at the kind of transient population that is going to be coming in and going out of there, we are going to need a lot more police officers, we are going to need a lot more vigilance. There’s just a whole host of situations that have concerns, really.”

Faced with questions from the community, the board’s next step was curious, to say the least. They cut the community out of the conversation. Rather than hold a public meeting, they met alone or in pairs with a Cordish representative. The public was not invited.

The express purpose of the approach was to bypass the state’s Open Meeting Law, which requires that meetings be posted and open to the public if there is a quorum of board members present.

After the private meetings, board members said they didn’t learn many details. If that’s the case, we wonder why they needed to meet in secret in the first place.

It should be noted that the Open Meeting Law also serves to protect elected officials from accusations of backdoor shenanigans. Because selectmen met in private, outside of regular meeting conditions, there’s no public record of the conversations. At least minutes are kept during the board’s closed, executive session meetings.

The slots proposal is still in the early stages, and there’s no guarantee that the state will award Cordish a license, or that the company, which is said to be considering a site in Chicopee, as well, will try to bring slots to Danvers.

One thing, however, is clear. The discussion over expanded gaming in Danvers needs to be held in full view of the public.

This first appeared as an editorial in The Salem News on Feb. 21.