The Board of Elections and Ethics yesterday cleared the way for a citywide vote Nov. 6 on whether to legalize gambling in Washington, but rejected a proposal for a similar vote on whether to block a downtown convention center.
The board also took the first procedural step on yet another proposed referendum that would decide whether to convene a convention designed to lead to statehood for the District.
The actions were taken under a charter amendment approved by D.C. voters in 1977 granting citizens the right to enact or repeal legislation and recall elected officeholders at the polls. Voting procedures approved later by the City Council went into effect last month.
Yesterday's meeting was the first for Mayor Marion Barry's two new appointees, Albert J. Beverage III and Virginia Moye, both Democrats and political supporters. The third board member is James L. Denson, a Republican.
On gambling, the board certified as legally proper the petition forms submitted by a group calling itself the D.C. Committee for Legalized Gambling. To put the issue on the ballot, the sponsors most obtain at least 12,451 signatures from city voters and get them certified by early August. Jerry Cooper, a spokesman for the committee, said petitions may be on the streets as early as today.
The issue is sure to stir controversy. The Rev. Andrew Fowler, executive secretary of the Committee of 100 Ministers and pastor of the Capitol View Baptist Church, said he regretted that the elections board could not block petitions that would "denigrate and deteriorate our society."
Fowler said the committee will "do everything in our power" to block gambling. The committee and other Protestant ministerial groups have consistently opposed the proposal since it was advanced last year by a citysponsored study commission.
The referendum proposal, if approved, would enact a law creating a municipal lottery, authorizing parimutuel betting on dog races and jai alai matches and legalizing some forms of social and charitable gambling.
Among supporters of the proposal is a group proposing to erect a jai alai fronton (arena) in the city. Jai alai is a fast-paced game of southern European origin that is sort of a hybrid of handball and tennis.
Cooper said other support comes from small businesses, such as liquor stores, barber and beauty shops and neighborhood convenience stores, whose owners would sell lottery tickets. The annual yield of gambling profits to the city treasury has been estimated as high as $40 million.
Action on the gambling issue was by consensus. On the proposal for a referendum to block the convention center, the board voted 2 to 0, with Denson abstaining. The action, which rejected petitions already submitted by the Convention Center Referendum Committee, was taken on legal grounds.
Cecily Collier, general counsel, advised the board that the City Council had passed a law designed to prohibit a referendum on any project financed by the city budget. The center, which would be built near Mount Vernon Square at an estimated cost of $99 million, is in that category.
Board member Denson, who also is president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, which backs the center, had been asked by center opponents to disqualify himself from considering the issue. While denying any conflict, he abstained from the vote without formally disqualifying himself.