Casino-vote issue takes the stage; Conley challenges Connolly stance

Follow the flying statements: Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley, a candidate for mayor, on Sunday raised questions about the legality of an East Boston-only vote on a Suffolk Downs casino, then said that the 13-member City Council should “come to their senses” and move to endorse a city-wide vote.

Conley upped the ante on Tuesday, taking direct aim at John Connolly, a city councillor at-large running for mayor: “While John Connolly – an official elected city-wide, no less - talks about a more open development process, he isn’t willing to back up his rhetoric by making this project and this process more transparent and inclusive,” Conley said. “Instead, for his own short term political gain, he is willing to disenfranchise 95 percenty of the people of Boston he hopes to represent as mayor.”

“I’ve been clear since day one that neighbors should have more input about developments in their community and the same is true here,” Connolly had said in a statement on Sunday. “If the casino were proposed for Hyde Park, would the people of Hyde Park want East Boston to decide?”

While saying he does not favor or oppose a casino, Conley has argued that if East Boston votes to reject a casino while the rest of the city votes in favor, the neighborhood should be given the final say.

At a late Sunday afternoon press conference on City Hall Plaza, Conley said that if the entire city rejects having a casino in East Boston, he would support the decision and file a lawsuit to prevent a resort casino from locating in Everett, as gambling mogul Steve Wynn has proposed. The city of Everett has voted in favor of the Wynn project, but residents of Charlestown and Somerville will bear the burden of it without receiving benefits, Conley said.

His Sunday remarks took aim at several city councillors – five of them are running for mayor, with most of them on-the-record as supporting an East Boston-only vote – and singled out Connolly, who has topped several recent polls. Outgoing Mayor Thomas Menino also supports an East Boston-only vote, saying the neighborhood should have the sign-off because it will be directly affected by the proposed casino.

The state’s expanded gambling law allows cities with populations over 100,000 to restrict a vote to just the ward where the gambling facility would be located. “Now I believe – I’m also an attorney, as you know, I’m the district attorney – I believe that’s [a] constitutionally flawed argument anyways,” Conley said. “So my expectation would be that if there is a referendum here in Boston, we may very well see a challenge on the constitutionality of an East Boston-only vote. For me though, it really is not so much a legalistic argument.”

Conley’s comments echoed those of Secretary of State Bill Galvin, the state’s elections chief, who raised legal concerns about a ward-only vote during the debate over expanding the state’s gambling laws in 2011.

Asked if he would support a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of a ward-only vote, Conley said, “I believe that I would in light of the fact that I believe that we ought to all have a say in the matter. But this is where I ask – this can all be averted. This can all be averted if the members of the City Council come to their senses and have a vote in the City Council to make it a citywide vote.”

Conley noted that councillors in Springfield voted earlier this year to take a casino vote citywide, when they could have limited to just the one ward.

Mission Hill Councillor Michael Ross, who is among the 12 candidates running for mayor, said in his own statement that he doesn’t support casino gambling in the state and would have voted against the casino legislation if he was in the Legislature. “But we can’t stick our heads in the sand,” he said. “State law says casino gambling is coming to Eastern Massachusetts. Every expert I’ve talked to has said it’s going to come down to either Everett or East Boston.” And he would rather have it in East Boston in order to get the city’s hands on some new tax revenue, and the neighborhood should get the final say, he said.

Menino administration officials are negotiating a mitigation agreement with Suffolk Downs. On Sunday, while attending a gospel music festival on City Hall Plaza an hour after Conley’s press conference, Menino said there would be an announcement on the agreement “shortly.”

Conley’s aggressive tone comes nearly a week after another mayoral candidate, Codman Square Health Center co-founder Bill Walczak, stepped up his opposition to a casino. Walczak wrote a letter to the state’s gambling commission, citing negative social impacts as the reasons behind his resistance.

Dee Dee Edmondson, a Walczak spokeswoman, attended Conley’s press conference on Sunday. Afterward, she said, “The only candidate that is 100 percent against the Suffolk Downs and Everett casinos is Bill Walczak. The rest are just dancing around the issue and trying to find wiggle room in the middle ground between for and against.”

Walczak was planning on Wednesday to unveil plans for an “innovation district” focused on technology and clean energy in East Boston as a better economic way to spur growth and jobs in the community.

Conley’s nuanced stance has cost him the support of a state representative. Carlo Basile, an East Boston Democrat who supports keeping it a neighborhood-only vote, abandoned Conley for City Councillor At-Large Connolly after the district attorney made his case for a city-wide vote on a casino, with the neighborhood getting a preference.