About two-weeks ago complaints began coming in to Historic City News and the City of St Augustine concerning a business that has obtained a license to operate inside the city limits but may be operating outside the law. Concerns have been recorded at the last two city commission meetings from members of the public during the public comment periods.
Smitty’s is a video poker establishment doing business on Masters Drive. Several years ago, these storefront businesses flourished in northeast Florida until the Attorney General’s office, in cooperation with local police and sheriffs, took an enforcement position that they amounted to nothing more than gambling devices in the same category as slot machines, and were therefore illegal.
“As we are organizing to improve West St Augustine, we support the opening of businesses that contribute positively to the neighborhood,” a Ravenswood Neighborhood Association leader wrote Thursday, March 8th. “Gambling halls create a barrier to development by stigmatizing Masters Drive, creating an atmosphere that many may see as unsafe and reducing property values.”
The Ravenswood property owners and residents have taken the position that what they are calling “gambling halls”, and the “nefarious activities” they attract, were allowed in by the City without any thought to notifying neighbors or seeking community input regarding the risks.
In an e-mail circulated between city management staff, the director of planning and building, the city attorney and Mayor Nancy Shaver, who was contacted by a constituent who resides in the neighborhood, the city attorney responded, “The city does not regulate gambling.” Brilliant.
Attorney Isabelle Lopez, infamous for handing off legal work to outside private law firms rather than representing the interests of city taxpayers herself, went on to say, “What is or is not gambling is determined by the State of Florida.” Again, brilliant.
She went on to ramble through, without much specificity, the Duval County sweep of Internet Cafes that occurred “a few years ago”. Lopez concluded the State’s allegations that the video poker parlors “were in fact illegal gambling operations” met with “limited success in court”.
Lopez thumbnailed the process for collecting the business tax (formerly called a “business license”) for Internet Cafes. Essentially, she stated that those applications are “reviewed for compliance with zoning and building codes for commercial uses.” In issuing the “license”, Lopez says the cashier reminds the applicant that the City “is offering no opinion on whether their operations comply with state and federal gambling laws.”
At this point, procedurally, should the City of St Augustine receive a complaint about video poker machines operating within the city limits, a police officer will not be dispatched and the complainant will be referred to the Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Attorney General’s office.
Apparently Lopez doesn’t understand that St Augustine police officers enforce state laws all the time, not just local city ordinances — and when they have a criminal complaint that they are unsure of, the complainant is simply directed to the local office of the State Attorney of the Seventh Judicial Circuit, R. J. Larizza, who makes the decision to prosecute or not.