Council committee shows interest in changes to the city’s gambling ordinance

Council committee shows interest in changes to the city’s gambling ordinance

By Bob Seidenberg

As far back as 2009, Evanston City Council members considered opening the door to legalized video gaming terminals in establishments but closed it quickly.

But that attitude  might not prevail today. Members of the City Council’s Human Services Committee voted 3-2 at their May 1 meeting in support of Council member Devon Reid’s call for changes to the city’s gambling ordinance.

Under the proposal, staff would bring back their findings to the committee in three months.

Voting in favor were Reid, Juan Geracaris, 9th, and Bobby Burns 5th.

Voting no were Kristian Harris, 5th, and Eleanor Revelle, 7th.

Need law that ‘aligns with the world as it is today’: Reid

In making the proposal, Council member  Reid, 8th, said one of  the driving forces behind his proposal was “making sure that city code aligns with the world as it is today and with our values as they are today.

Reid, who said he personally dislikes gambling, raised concern that police, in having to enforce gambling, as the code  is currently written, “is  potentially putting our city at liability, legal liability, and missing  an opportunity to make sure that  we are not over  policing certain  communities.”

Beyond that, he noted, “this (gambling) is potentially a good  source  of  revenue for the city. You know, our dollars are potentially leaving Evanston or certainly leaving Evanston because we don’t have this and we could keep more of the money local.”

He said the change could potentially benefit both businesses who choose to install gaming machines as well as the city,  generating revenue through sales tax and gambling taxes.

He further noted that, “gambling is legal here,” and “you’re allowed to gamble under state law. Certainly it is regulated under state  law and I think we need to more closely mirror state  law on the on this issue.”

He said the law is badly in need of an update from when it was written in the 1950s.

As  the law currently written, Reid told Committee members, if he were to download the application for Draft Kings, a sports  gambling site, on his cell phone, “the Evanston Police Department would be able to confiscate my phone and place me under  arrest.”

Ninth Ward Alderperson Juan Geracaris,  chairing the meeting, expressed support for moving  forward on the proposal.

“I’ve spoken with a number of residents who are in favor of of kind  of loosening  our  code  around gambling, just  specifically for small  businesses,” he said, “and this (the proposal) is like a first step.”

Council member Eleanor Revelle,  7th, asked about a statement from the Evanston Police Department in staff’s memo on the issue.

The statement reported that the department  “does not object to licensed sports betting and other forms of gambling via the internet including through mobile applications except by any person under the age of 21 years old. The Evanston Police Department (EPD) does not recommend modifying the Code to make a distinction between gambling on private and public property.”

Revelle asked Evanston Police Commander Ryan Glew,  at the meeting, how often the department actually enforces the ordinance..

“We have not had a gambling arrest  in approximately ten years,” Glew replaced.

Enforcing the gambling ordinance, he said, was something that took place a couple of generations  ago, “but not a recent  problem.”

Clarifying the department’s point of view as stated in the memo, Glew told Committee members that the position of  EPD is “that any language that would result in privatized gambling that was  outside of regulation or oversight” would be something  that the department would  be concerned about.

“I think we’re standing relatively silent on a lot of what’s here,” he said of the issue in front of the committee, “taking the lead from the legal department and other regulatory agencies.”

“However, language changes that are going to let gambling potentially evolve and grow without regulation or the appropriate amount of oversight,” he said, could cause concern “because that could lead to quality of life issues in certain areas, other crimes or so on so forth.”

Revelle noted the ordinance as it is currently is quite lengthy, with just one section of it addressing video gaming.

“So if if the goal here is to pave the way for video gaming, couldn’t we merely focus on that piece of the ordinance? I guess I’m reluctant to have to ask staff to spend a lot of time trying to rework what is a pretty lengthy, detailed ordinance,” she said.

Reid said he was “fully on board” addressing some of the concerns raised in Glew’s perspective.

“I think we need to make sure  that gambling establishments are regulated,” he said. “I don’t think it makes sense  to Willy or Nilly to (allow  people) to create a gambling establishment in their  home. And so there needs to be strict regulation  where  this can and cannot take place. But he also highlighted the need for changes in how the ordinance is currently written.

Ordinance violations carry fines of not less than $200 and not more than $500 for each offense, he noted.

He said as currently written the ordinance leaves open what couldn’t have been contemplated in 1957, such as cell phones and other devices where people can gamble where people can gamble, including “the legal machines that we would potentially want to see in our city.”

He said the ordinance also doesn’t take into account that certain forms of  gambling that qualify “as more of a cultural pastime in certain communities.

“And you know, I don’t think we should have in our code something  that  criminalizes something that potentially is innocent,” he said.

2009 proposal for video gaming terminals never made it out of committee

Legalizing gambling has surfaced occasionally in Council member’s discussions, dating back over  a decade, particularly during times when the city was strapped for revenue.

In  2009, Council  members on the  city’s Rules Committee voted 8-1 against the prospect of allowing video  gaming terminals in local bars or restaurants.

Summing  up  the action, then Mayor Elizabeth  Tisdahl commented “I don’t think we would be making that much money from  it,  and  I understand  the consequences are devastating.”

Alderman Ann  Rainey,  8th Ward, was the lone council member at the time to vote  against, maintaining  officials  should  at  least  get comment  from members of the business community.

As for social  consequences, she maintained it  was hypocritical  for  city officials to say, “We trust you in the service  of alcohol in the city of Evanston to people 21 and over, but  we don’t trust  you with five  video poker machines, if  you want them.”

‘Guardrails and proactive supports’

During the public comment portion of the May  1 meeting, several residents, including former Ridgeville Park Commissioners Dan Coyne and Rob Bady, spoke  in support of  the  Council moving forward on the issue.

“Thank you for engaging this conversation on what I think is a potential resource not only for our small businesses, but also for our city budget.”

“I understand the hesitancy,” he said, “given the historical addictions and corruption in this particular field. But as in all new legal endeavors, one can envision oversight guardrails and proactive supports.”

“Why send Evanston dollars into other communities when we could invest right here, for instance at the Firehouse Grill, and  Bluestone.”

Bady prefaced his remarks, noting he works as a  sales rep for  Eureka Entertainment which owns the Universal Gaming Group, a leading operator of video gaming terminals in Illinois.

He told Committee members that he had spoken about the issue with Patrick Fowler,  owner  of the two restaurants mentioned by Coyne, “and we decided it was time to bring the conversation to the committee, bring  it  to the Council and the  city.”

Fowler, he noted, employs about 103  people  in Evanston, and was the only business owner to add to his business during Covid.

“He is an Evanstonian and has helped out many nonprofits,” he said.

Bady spoke of the gambling outlets already available.

“You can gamble on your phone. You can, of course, gamble at CVS through the lottery, which we’ve all done when it’s hit a billion.”

He proposed that Committee members consider a two-year pilot for accessory gaming in a place such as the Firehouse to get the program going.

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