D.C. Slots Proponents Win Ruling
Judge Allows Petition Drive to Put Issue on November Ballot
By Serge F. Kovaleski and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 30, 2004; Page A01
A D.C. Superior Court judge ruled yesterday that proponents of a plan to bring slot machine gambling to the nation's capital can begin collecting signatures to put the issue before District voters in November.
The ruling by Judge James E. Boasberg was a defeat for a coalition of religious and community activists who had filed suit to block the initiative, which calls for building an entertainment complex at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE containing as many as 3,500 video lottery terminals.
But the project's backers now face the daunting task of getting signatures from at least 17,500 registered D.C. voters by a deadline of 5 p.m. Tuesday, and the petition form will not be available until a meeting of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics scheduled for 2 p.m. tomorrow.
That means organizers will have a period of less than 123 hours, much of it falling over the July 4 holiday weekend, to meet their goal of gathering 40,000 to 50,000 signatures. They hope to collect that many names to guard against the possibility that some signatures will be found invalid during a review by the elections board.
Asked whether the deadline will be met, the initiative's general counsel, former D.C. Council member John Ray, said: "Well, I think so. We will just have to have everybody well organized, and we will have to have some luck with the weather."
As part of that effort, proponents plan to pay petition circulators about $6 a signature and hope to have about 200 people collecting the names, Ray said. They have hired two firms to recruit residents to distribute petitions, and they are trying to line up advisory neighborhood commissioners and other community activists in each of the city's eight wards to lead teams of petition handlers this weekend.
Elections board spokesman Bill O'Field said that although it is illegal to pay individuals for their signatures, there is nothing that prohibits signature gatherers from receiving compensation. The campaign of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) paid some petition circulators in his 2002 reelection bid, an effort that resulted in a scandal over forged signatures.
Those behind the gambling proposal also are planning an extensive public relations campaign, including radio and television ads beginning in the next day or two.
"I don't think it is doable," said Dorothy Brizill, one of the plaintiffs in the unsuccessful lawsuit, referring to the amount of time that gambling supporters have to obtain the necessary number of signatures.
Brizill, executive director of the nonprofit government watchdog group DCWatch, called the amount being offered for signatures "just outrageous."
"We're going to be telling people: 'Just don't sign,' " she said, adding, "When you pay people to get signatures, that is when you get it wrong."
With the payment of $6 a signature, the price tag for the petition drive could top $300,000, bringing the total amount spent so far on the initiative to well over half a million dollars.
The gaming project is being proposed by Ray, D.C. businessman Pedro Alfonso and Rob Newell, a financier from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Newell said after yesterday's court hearing, "I am looking forward to the next stage and coordinating a project that will bring substantial benefits to the city."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Methodist minister David Argo, left, DCWatch Executive Director Dorothy Brizill and Ward 5 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Regina James talk to the media after losing their court battle to block the slots initiative.
(Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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