Is Mayor Menino Trying to Annex Everett?

The hypocrisy of doing anything to help Suffolk Downs win a casino license.

If you’re like me, then you expect all local casino politics to be highly principled. All bidders for the state’s coveted gaming licenses will behave honorably and the politicians involved will ascend to the highest of moral high-grounds. So, then, if you’re like me, you would be shocked—shocked!—to hear of any shenanigans or hypocrisy having to do with these gaming licenses. Especially from someone like Mayor Tom Menino, who’s never been known to bully anyone to get his way.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I read yesterday’s Globe. Apparently, the Menino administration is trying to block Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn’s bid for a casino in Everett, claiming that Wynn’s proposed resort would just creep over the Boston city line. If that’s the case, then Menino would be able to claim “host community” status and basically stonewall the project to death by refusing to negotiate with Wynn on a so-called host community agreement. Menino has, of course, been backing a rival bid for the Boston-area gaming license at Suffolk Downs.

Reporter Mark Arsenault writes:

Boston’s assertion rests on the odd shape of the city line, which darts across the Mystic River in a thin finger into the edge of the former Monsanto chemical site where Wynn intends to build.

The 2011 state casino law defines a host community simply as “a municipality in which a gaming establishment is located” or proposed. A “gaming establishment,” under the law, is “a gaming area and any other nongaming structure related to the gaming area and may include, but shall not be limited to, hotels, restaurants or other amenities.”

What’s so interesting about Menino’s insistence that Boston have a say in whether Everett gets a casino is that he doesn’t believe that all Boston residents should have a say in whether Boston gets a casino. While most casino bids have to pass town- or city-wide referendums, a special provision was written into the state’s casino law stipulating that in cities with populations greater than 125,000 people, the vote may be limited to the ward where the casino is proposed to be located. In Boston, that means only Eastie residents will get to vote on whether Suffolk Downs gets a shot to open a casino. Menino could expand the vote to the whole city, but he’s resisted any pressure—even despite a recent poll showing that 66 percent of Bostonians favor a city-wide referendum. The conventional wisdom is that an Eastie-only vote will make it easier for the referendum to pass.

The various mayoral candidates have split on whether the whole city should get to vote, with—at the risk of being cynical—those candidates most interested in winning votes in East Boston supporting an Eastie-only referendum, and those more focused on other parts of the city favoring a city wide vote (cynical, I know, sorry). In any case, this vote will happen before Menino leaves office at the end of the year.

Menino’s apparent hypocrisy, of course, is not unexpected. He’s doing what he thinks he needs to do to protect the city. Because if Everett, just across the Mystic River, does get a casino, Boston will experience all of the headaches without nearly as much of the payoff. That’s bad for the city. But it’s also bad if Boston gets a casino that it turns out a majority of Bostonians don’t want. And guess what, a casino in East Boston will affect people in Everett, too. Should Everett pols get the same power over a Boston bid that, because of a weird geographic quirk, Menino is trying to seek over theirs?

Perhaps the fault here lies with the legislators who wrote the bill, and did not do enough to ensure that not just host communities, but neighboring ones as well, are protected when the licenses for these new gambling meccas are finally awarded. Because make no mistake: when the casinos come, their effects—good and bad—won’t be limited by city lines.