Anne Arundel council might delay vote on slots zoning

December 04, 2009|By Laura Smitherman and Nicole Fuller | Baltimore Sun reporters

The Anne Arundel County Council might postpone again a vote that would allow a proposed slot-machine casino in the county after one member abruptly recused himself from the contentious process that has dragged on for nine months.

Councilman James Benoit said Thursday that he is considering pushing back the zoning vote two weeks in light of the revelation from Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks that he can't vote on the matter because his business ties could create conflicts of interest. Benoit, a Democrat who opposes expanded gambling, said a delay might be needed to ensure fairness.

Middlebrooks' recusal makes it more difficult - perhaps impossible - to get the votes needed to approve the casino near Arundel Mills mall proposed by Baltimore developer Cordish Cos. A delay would give the council time to appoint a replacement for Councilman Joshua J. Cohen, who won election as Annapolis mayor and will be sworn in Monday, just hours before the zoning vote had been scheduled.

"If we vote for a bill on Monday, it's pretty unfair to Cordish because he wouldn't get a fair hearing," said Benoit, who sponsored the zoning bill so that he could control when the vote happens. "On the other hand, if we wait until the vacant seat is filled, we're putting that person in the position of making a potentially career-threatening vote on slots on his first night on the job."

Middlebrooks, a Republican who is undecided on slots, said he decided to recuse himself after consulting with the county ethics commission Wednesday. He is an attorney with a practice in Glen Burnie. He wouldn't be specific but said people with whom he has "business dealings" have become involved in the slots debate recently, and he was concerned about the appearance of impropriety.

"I take this very seriously," Middlebrooks said, adding that he believes the council will still pass a zoning bill. "I'm saddened I can't participate."

With Middlebrooks and Cohen unavailable, that leaves only five members voting Monday night, and four votes are needed to pass the zoning legislation. Benoit has long said he wouldn't approve the zoning, and Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Republican, and Democratic Councilman Daryl Jones are sponsoring competing legislation that would permit slots at the Laurel Park racetrack and other locations, though not at the mall.

Cordish officials remain hopeful. Joseph Weinberg, a partner, said they believe zoning will pass because it's in the best interest of the county and state. The project is expected to generate more than $500 million annually in revenue.

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