By Bob Uphues
Although a majority of Riverside trustees expressed no interest in having the village attorney draft a video gambling ordinance for their review, board members also voted 4 to 2 on Dec. 7 to place an advisory referendum question on the spring primary ballot, asking residents whether they want to allow video gambling.
The question approved by trustees will be, "Should the village of Riverside allow video gambling?" It needs to be submitted to the Cook County Clerk by the Jan. 2, 2018 deadline in order for it to appear on the March 20, 2018 primary ballot.
Those voting for the advisory referendum were trustees Joseph Ballerine, Wendell Jisa, Scott Lumsden and Michael Sedivy. Trustees Doug Pollock and Elizabeth Peters voted against a referendum. President Ben Sells was not required to cast a vote, since his vote wasn't needed to break a tie.
Whatever the result of the referendum, the village board is under no obligation to act one way or another. Future boards are also free to reopen the subject at any time.
The village board's vote came after more intense opposition to the idea of video gambling in Riverside, with several residents expressing disbelief that the village board would put a referendum on the ballot when almost no one in the village is publicly advocating for video gambling.
"If board members are looking for direction from the community on this issue, I don't know what more you'd need than this," said Riverside resident Amy Jacksic.
Public reaction to video gambling in Riverside, since the subject first seriously surfaced in 2015, has been almost uniformly negative.
That didn't change during the Dec. 7 village board meeting, where opponents asked trustees to reaffirm the village's video gambling ban and spike the referendum.
"As anyone who has attended these board meetings can clearly see, again there is a very strong pushback against video gambling," said Riverside resident Kris Tokarz. "Despite the obvious opposition by residents, this issue seems to be continuing without any end. … It's time for it to stop."
Jacksic said placing an advisory referendum on the March ballot was buck-passing by the village board and eroded their credibility.
"Extending what has become a truly divisive gambling conversation between village leaders and the community can erode public trust and it can undermine the effectiveness and legitimacy of this board and its ability to move the village forward in a positive and productive way," Jacksic said.
The village board shelved the issue in 2016 after a town hall meeting on video gambling, but it surfaced again this summer when the owner of Mollie's Public House, Brian Carroll, asked the village board the decide whether or not to allow gambling in establishments that have liquor licenses.
In the face of fierce opposition, including a petition drive that gathered more than 500 signatures, Carroll withdrew his request, though Carroll's wife spoke at the Dec. 7 village board meeting. She said husband couldn't be at the meeting, because he had to take another job "to support the business." She supported putting the matter to a vote.
Trustee Elizabeth Peters spoke passionately against both pursuing further discussion on the subject of video gambling or a referendum, saying there was convincing public opposition. She also concurred with a majority of the Riverside Economic Development Commission, which in September officially voted to oppose video gambling.
"I do think a referendum is going to prolong this intense dialogue in an unnecessary way," Peters said.
Peters also agreed with opponents of video gambling who say there has been ample time for supporters to make their voices heard. Most of the support for video gambling expressed to trustees has been private and often anonymous.
"If you are unwilling to publicly support an opportunity that changes the status quo, that may provide your business with an advantage, then you don't deserve that advantage," Peters said.
Trustees Jisa, Lumsden and Sedivy said supported the referendum in part because they felt those in favor of video gambling or at least examining the matter further were intimidated by those in opposition, particularly on social media.
Jisa said he himself was the victim of intimidation on Facebook and he unfollowed conversations because he'd been attacked for his views. Sedivy called the rhetoric on social media "ugly," adding that the owner of Mollie's Public House had received threats.
"I see no harm and it's in your favor. If you think it's so overwhelming against gaming, let the vote show it and be done with this," Sedivy said in answer to those opposing the referendum.
Lumsden said a referendum was the only fair way for those people to have a voice without being attacked.
"If the intimidation factor has kept people from taking this opportunity, [a referendum] would vet that out," Lumsden said. "That's the only reason right now that I'm even considering that."
The only way to ensure a prohibition on video gambling in the future would be a binding referendum, which needs to be citizen-driven and requires a petition with signatures from 25 percent of registered voters in the village to place a question on the ballot.
State law also mandates the referendum question, the wording of which requires opponents of video gambling to vote "yes" in order to outlaw it, which brings a risk of the question being misinterpreted.