Councillor Sam Merulla's early and vocal opposition to a downtown Hamilton casino is looking less headstrong and more prescient with each passing day.
By Ryan McGreal
Published February 12, 2013
Circumstances seem to be lining up for Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla, whose early and vocal opposition to a downtown Hamilton casino is looking less headstrong and more prescient with each passing day.
After promising a motion to demand that the Ontario Government allow Hamilton to hold a referendum on the casino question, Merulla dropped the motion this week after learning that the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) is prepared to accept a decision that Flamboro Downs is the only site for a Hamilton casino.
He sent an email to local media on Friday, February 8, stating in part:
In light of the OLG committing to pursuing the RFP process respecting our autonomously made decision of a Flamborough site, any extension is redundant in the truest meaning of the word and I formally thank the OLG for this commitment.
OLG just agreed to a request from the Mayor's office for a one-month extension to the deadline for Hamilton to formulate a casino policy.
This new communication from OLG is important because it clarifies, for the first time, that OLG is willing to work within the City of Hamilton's casino parameters even if that entails restricting the location to Flamborough.
Previously, it was broadly hinted but never explicitly stated that if Hamilton rejected a downtown location, it would lose out on a casino altogether and City revenues would lose the $4.5 million a year in slot revenues.
The OLG Slots at Racetracks program that currently uses slot machine revenue to support the horce racing industry was set to run out at the end of March, but the Province appears to have established a precedent with a funding agreement for Woodbine Racetrack that would allow such facilities to continue.
Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale MPP Ted McMeekin has said that the Woodbine deal is a template for the Province's negotiations with Flamboro Downs.
With the announcement by OLG that the casino commission will entertain bids to run a Flamborough casino, the risk of refusing to allow a downtown location is mitigated.
Merulla caused a stir in December when he compared the OLG to "crack dealers" over their strategy to move casinos closer to vulnerable populations, including their push for Hamilton to allow a new casino in the downtown core. (Other observers have also called slot machines "the crack of gambling".)
PJ Mercanti, whose company is planning to partner on a casino/hotel/entertainment complex bid, complained about Merulla's comment in an email to a list of "Trusted Councilors [sic]" that included Mayor Bob Bratina. Mercanti wrote, "this type of comment gives a black eye to all of council, and paints an unpleasant picture of all Hamiltonians."
Mercanti requested that the City distance itself from Merulla's comments, suggesting that the City "issue a public statement stating that Councilor [sic] Merulla’s comments are not reflective of the thoughts or opinions of the City of Hamilton, its staff, its councilors [sic], or its Mayor."
In response, the Mayor forwarded Mercanti's email to all of council and asked for comments on his offer to issue the statement: "Councillor Merulla’s comments are not reflective of the thoughts or opinions of the City of Hamilton, its staff, its councilors [sic], or myself as Mayor."
Merulla, in turn, forwarded the emails to local media, defending his use of the "crack dealer" analogy and calling Bratina's point "moot" since it is "obvious" that "individual comments of a council member are not the formal comments of the City of Hamilton, unless of course there is a corresponding resolution of council."
Controversy erupted over the propriety of the Mayor issuing a public statement regarding the casino debate that was a verbatim quote from a casino lobbyist - right down to the misspelling of "councillor". The Mayor never did issue a public retraction of Merulla's comments.
Merulla turned more heads at the February 6, 2013 General Issues Committee meeting after one of the RockHammer presenters, Sizzle Club owner Dean Collett, said that holding a referendum amounts to councillors "shirking your responsibility".
Merulla retorted, "If you understood the issue, we made a decision in April of 2012 as Flamborough being our site. We are now being manipulated, and we have been manipulated, to change that site. I was decisive when I voted in April of 2012 and I believe the majority of this council was. To suggest otherwise is shirking your intelligence, frankly, and I frankly don't appreciate that."
The gallery erupted in applause, though Councillor Brad Clark raised a point of order to object to the way Merulla spoke to the delegates.
Merulla also leveled sharp criticism at Mayor Bratina, saying he "manipulates and distorts issues" and accusing him of changing his mind. "He's had three positions on the stadium, he's had three positions on the horse race industry, he's had two positions on the casino. Frankly, we need to call him on the carpet: where does he stand?"
Merulla waved at the empty Mayor's chair. "I said, Bob, you'd better not go anywhere, and like usual, he's not here. Where's Bob?"
After the meeting, Merulla shared an email from Peggy Chapman, Mayor Bratina's chief of staff, asking Merulla to "reword the motion so the Mayor can have it considered by other mayors in the province in the same situation."
Merulla has never shied from strong opinions, and he's easily the most accessible member of City Council. While some councillors grumble about "usual suspects" using new media to comment on civic affairs, Merulla sends frequent emails to local news media and participates actively on twitter.
He is alternately inspiring and infuriating - though this tends to depend on whether you agree or disagree with him on a given issue - but there is no denying his willingness to take a stand, own it and defend it against criticism.
When it comes to leadership, Council has been mostly rudderless for the past two years. In the matter of the casino, Merulla has stepped into the power vacuum and created the space for a real debate to take place.
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