Jackson County residents now have written proof that they can vote on a non-binding casino referendum.
In a letter dated March 7, 2007, deputy Attorney General Mike Lanford determined a proposed Choctaw casino would have an impact on the Jackson County community. Therefore, Lanford wrote in his opinion, whether people want the casino on Choctaw land along Highway 57 is the proper subject of a non-binding referendum.
The opinion from the Attorney General's office did not surprise local pastors and area business leaders. For months, they've been saying Jackson County people deserve a chance to vote on the Choctaw proposal.
Tim Taranto is the spokesman for Gulf Coast Businesses For Fair Play, a group trying to keep the Choctaw casino out of the county.
"Folks are very adamant that they want to go ahead and have a vote," Taranto said outside his Ocean Springs office. "They want to let their feelings be known."
The three page document says their feelings can be known. Deputy Attorney General Mike Lanford wrote, "It is our opinion that the potential impact resulting from the establishment of a proposed tribal casino within the county is an issue within the jurisdiction of the County Board of Supervisors and would be, pursuant to the county's home rule powers, the proper subject of a non-binding referendum, as long as the Board finds that the use of public funds for such a referendum is in the county's best interest."
In a May 3, 2006 letter that Choctaw Chief Philip Martin sent to Jackson County supervisors, Martin said his tribe would like a referendum held on the casino question in 2008. "the earliest date for a referendum that we think feasible is the 2008 Presidential Election," the letter said.
If people said no to the idea, Martin wrote he wouldn't pursue the project. "We will never be able to build a resort in Jackson County if there is no homegrown support for the idea," he wrote.
However, Jackson County's anti-gambling forces want that vote this fall. Taranto said, "We want to be very straightforward about the fact that if it gets bogged down and it looks like we're back on the chief's time frame, having this vote next November as opposed to this November, then we'll step forward and ask them to keep their commitment and have that vote now."
Jackson County supervisors have asked lawmakers to pass legislation that approves a non-binding vote. If that bill is not approved, members of Gulf Coast Businesses for Fair Play will use the AG's opinion to get the issue on November ballots.
"There's a lot of frustration," said Taranto, referring to the discontent amongst many of his neighbors about the casino question resurfacing 17 years after Jackson County said no to gaming. "Here we are back at the table again because of tribal gaming trying to come into the community."