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Petition for slot-machine study sets stage for emotional debate

By Jose Martinez
Globe Correspondent / June 7, 2012
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Tempers flared at this week’s Town Meeting in Plainville over a petition urging selectmen to hire an outside consultant with no ties to the Plainridge Racecourse to study the pros and cons for the town should the state allow slot machines at the harness track.

The petition, presented by members of a local antigambling group, No Plainville Racino, was by far the most hotly debated measure during Monday’s four-hour Town Meeting.

After a half-hour of often terse discussion, the petition was defeated, 83-33, in the only vote of the night requiring a head count.

Town officials blasted the petition as redundant and insulting.

“There are all these inferences going around that we seem to be in Plainridge’s back pocket,” said Selectman Robert Rose. “Let me tell you something, I owe nothing to Plainridge.”

“I feel insulted, too,” said Selectwoman Andrea Soucy, the board’s chairwoman. “Plainridge has nothing to say about it.’’ The selectmen will choose a consultant, she said, “and when the whole thing is over, we will give Plainridge the bill. That is the only thing Plainridge is going to have to do with this study.”

Plainridge Racecourse has notified the town of its intent to seek a Class 2 gaming license under the state’s new expanded gambling law, which calls for one slots-only venue along with a maximum of three full casino operations.

The legislation, passed last year, requires applicants to cover whatever expenses the host communities incur in drawing up required mitigation agreements.

If granted the license, Plainridge officials hope to add 1,250 slot machines to the track’s harness and simulcast racing operation as part of a $160 million makeover to the facility, which sits next to Route 1 and its interchange with Interstate 495.

Meanwhile, the state’s other horse-racing venue, Suffolk Downs, has unveiled a $1 billion plan to turn the thoroughbred track straddling East Boston and Revere into a full-scale casino resort.

Plainville residents on both sides of the gambling debate endured snickers and catcalls during their turns at the Town Meeting microphone Monday night.

Marcia Benes called the atmosphere “poisonous.”

“As a citizen concerned about the welfare of this town, this community and what it is going to look like in the future, I want the selectmen to have an unbiased, neutral, and hopefully the best, most informative study that Plainridge’s money can buy, so they can do the negotiating on our behalf,” Benes said.

She went on to say that she opposed gambling as “damaging to society,” a comment that triggered such an uproar in the auditorium that Moderator Andrew Martin had to intervene.

“The selectmen said they are offended,” she continued, “and I am offended that the selectmen can’t understand that they should respect all of us who come to this meeting with different points of view. No one should be offended by requests for transparency in government.”

Some residents sought a middle ground on the polarizing issue.

“I think one thing we can all agree on is that money is tight,” said Steve Melanson. “The state’s passed a thing saying we have the possibility of getting a racino. Hire the consultant like you are doing and put it to a vote. This is a chance finally to get some income coming into our community instead of fighting over budgets. A little while ago we were talking about shutting down the Recreation Department.”

Ned Merrick, a retired Plainville police chief, minced no words in urging a no vote on the petition during his turn at the microphone.

“Let’s call this what it is — this a maneuver by a group in town that doesn’t like any form of gambling,” he said. “That’s fine, I get that. But don’t use us as your pawns.”

Merrick cited the likelihood the measure would be struck down as an illegal attempt by Town Meeting to order the Board of Selectmen to act, which he considers a violation of the separation of powers at the town level.

“I’m not interested in getting a dope slap from the attorney general,” Merrick said.

Plainridge president Gary Piontkowski said the track had taken no position on the petition, and did not wish to comment on its defeat.

“That is the democratic process,” Piontkowski said. “We are going to follow the letter of the law. The town will too. There are a lot of bright people there and they are going to do what they have to do.”

Town Administrator Joseph Fernandes said the measure raised a moot point, since local officials have been planning to hire an outside consultant all along.

Ultimately, he said, Plainville residents would get the opportunity to vote on the host community agreement.

Fernandes said selectmen would discuss hiring a consultant at their meeting next week. He said he expects to begin soliciting bids for the study within weeks, and to have a consulting firm hired by mid-July.

Jennifer Crimmins Keen, who offered up an amendment to the original No Plainville Racino petition to require a public disclosure of how the consultant is chosen, later handed out fliers citing recent anticasino votes in Foxborough, Middleborough, Lakeville, and Freetown to residents filing out of the meeting.

“Slots are coming, dear,” one woman commented as she walked by.

Keen shook her head as she stood in the lobby of the Beatrice H. Wood School, just up the hall from the auditorium and gymnasium where the Town Meeting was winding down.

“Through these doors pass the greatest children in the world,” proclaimed a sign on the wall behind her.

“This school is a mile from the racino — the proposed racino,” Keen, a mother of two, said. “The kids take the bus and go right past it. They’ll go by it every day. I don’t get this town. All these other towns are voting this down. Maybe they care about their towns more than just the bottom line.”

Keen said the public criticism of her and the other members of No Plainville Racino has been grueling.

“I just got yelled at by the selectmen,” she said. “We weren’t trying to be insulting in any way. We just wanted to make sure they do it right.”

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