City councillor Adam Vaughan had a message for the crowd at Toronto’s first casino consultation meeting at City Hall on Wednesday night.
“This fight can be won if the voice of the people is heard,” he yelled, interrupting the open house meeting as he stood on a chair so he could be heard.
The statement raised a question among those at ground level: what would it take for their voices to carry?
Until last June, provincial law required referendums in any municipality considering a casino (Toronto voters turned down a casino in 1997). Part of the provincial government’s recent push to expand the activities of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) was to say now only “public input” was necessary.
That input started this week, with the first of five meetings. And the people are eager to have their say. Most of the 200 who showed up on Wednesday were holding feedback forms. These forms, also available online, are how the city will collect public input on whether to allow a casino.
Though the ‘no’ side has come out of the gate quickly, the ‘yes’ side has the organization of some unions and online communities to count on. What no one on either side knows, however, is just how much their opinions will be taken into account in the final decision.
Some residents feel strongly about the decision-making process itself.
“We are disappointed by the way the consultations are being conducted,” says Maureen Lynett, co-founder of the group No Casino Toronto.
Ms. Lynett helped form the group last summer in response to what she saw as the OLG’s juggernaut campaign of advertising and revenue-projecting headlines.
“It was being portrayed like there was no opposition,” says Ms. Lynett, a 59-year-old artist from High Park. “We wanted to at least get a petition online.”
Their petition has more than 4,000 names, but in a consultation process where one person doesn’t equal one vote, she’s concerned that the city’s online survey is not as secure as No Casino Toronto’s petition, which requires names and addresses.
“The online survey is alarming,” says Ms. Lynett, pointing out that anyone can fill out any number of surveys, from anywhere.The survey doesn’t ensure respondents live in Toronto, beyond a request for the first half of a postal code (see sidebar).
She also thinks the public meetings are inadequate (five meetings) over too short a time span (11 days) and the wrong format (open-house information sessions, with little opportunity to speak).
Anyone who has been to a public meeting on a touchy topic could argue that the city’s eight-page feedback form, though distributed indiscriminately, is a more effective way to gauge public opinion than to have town hall meetings dominated by firebrands on both sides of the issue (online submissions will be accepted until January 25).
The feedback will be wrapped into a city manager report expected to go to the executive committee in March.
Though just how the city manager Joe Pennachetti will measure the input remains unclear, this week gave the first indication of what he is likely to hear. At the Wednesday meeting the anti-casino forces were in the majority, but online gambling forums are busy with talk of the consultations, making Internet submissions a wild card.
Ron Shepherd, organizer of the Toronto Aces Poker Club, would tell Mr. Pennachetti to ignore most of what he hears from non-gamblers. On the phone from Brampton, where he now lives after relocating from Toronto, the 55-year-old trader of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia says there’s been a public misconception about casinos in Ontario since the first one opened in Windsor in 1994.
“People are under the impression that anyone who goes will get hooked for life and lose all their money. Well, you can play the lottery, or Scratch and Win. So going to a casino for an evening is just a night out, as far as I can see. You can spend as much in a bar, if you try.”
It’s the idea of people spending money that makes Bruce Baker support a casino. The 60-year-old has been a real estate agent, a TTC bus driver, an executive assistant at city hall and a candidate for city council. He’s now a consultant, assisting developers.
“There is a revenue stream that has to be tapped. If they can integrate this with online gaming, it will be the direction to go,” Mr. Baker said at Wednesday’s public meeting.
He also stressed the jobs required for construction, and the potential for 6,000 full-time jobs once the casino is open.
Alexander Greer, however, thinks the pot of gold promised by casino boosters is as elusive as the end of a rainbow.
Professor Greer, originally from New Jersey, says Atlantic City was devastated by the substitution effect – the way casinos siphon from other businesses so that money is put into slot machines instead of theatre box offices or restaurant cash registers.
“The casinos have not brought any of the benefits promised,” says Mr. Greer. “Hundreds of buses pull up in front of the casino and disgorge patrons. They go into the casino and never come out until they get back on the buses. The tax base has been devastated. The casinos have had to hire their own police forces. There are no supermarkets, no businesses.
“A mecca was promised. We got a slum by the sea.”
The former university professor of statistics made a deputation to the mayor’s executive committee last November, telling them to “entirely discount” the Ernst & Young report on the casino, which forecast city hosting fees to be as much as $168-million a year. OLG has since said something between $50- to $100-million is more realistic.
Mr. Greer argues the report relies on unaudited information, wildly optimistic projections from OLG and explicitly ignores the substitution effect.
Prof. Greer says he goes to the horse track on occasion and isn’t against gambling. “What I’m opposed to is making a decision based on faulty logic, incomplete data and unsubstantiated projections.”
That decision should come at a council meeting in April. Whether it will be based on the things Mr. Greer fears – and just how much opinions collected from across Toronto and beyond will count for – is something that only Mr. Pennachetti, 44 city councilors and (possibly) one mayor will know.
When it comes to telling the city of Toronto how you feel about a new casino, there’s no limit to how often they can hear from you.
The online survey designed to let residents register their opinion allows users to submit their views multiple times and makes no effort to ensure respondents even live in Toronto, beyond a request for the first half of a postal code.
“Don’t think it’s very useful,” said Andrew Bourgeois, a Toronto resident who was surprised to discover after he completed the online survey that he could go back and do it again and again.
“I’m worried that the city manager is going to treat this as an indication of people’s true feelings about it. You don’t even have to be from Toronto to log in your views,” said Mr. Bourgeois, who recently signed up as a Liberal Party member and says he is opposed to a casino.
Councillor Paula Fletcher, who Mr. Bourgeois contacted about the survey after receiving an e-mail from her office, says she also is worried about how much weight the city can give the survey results. “You can go in as many times as you like and answer as many times as you like. I have real concerns with that,” she said.
A city spokeswoman said it has no plans to change the survey. It was designed to allow multiple submissions from the same IP address so that more than one person living in the same house and using the same computer can answer it, Wynna Brown said.
It also means that residents who do not own a computer can use those at public libraries to take the poll, she said. “There are a number of safeguards to deal with multiple submissions from the same IP address,” said Ms. Brown in a written response.
“There is a security mechanism in place that addresses spam-bot, or robo-submissions – and, most importantly, when reviewing the data, our analysis will be able to account for multiple, duplicate responses.” Ms. Brown noted that the form asks respondents to provide the first three digits of a postal code primarily to identify any patterns in the responses of people who live in different parts of the city. Postal codes can’t be used for security purposes, she said, because it is hard to ensure they are accurate.