Near the end of last year, the Nassau Regional Off Track Betting Corporation (NOTB) announced that it planned on leasing the space at the site of an old Fortunoff’s department store on busy Old Country Road in Westbury, NY, to house a 1,000 seat video slot casino. The decision came as a surprise to area residents who had not been asked and who had not heard about the proposal until its announcement. They quickly formed a grass-roots organization calling themselves Stop the Casino at Fortunoff Committee.
Next thing you know, signs began popping up around the Village of Westbury; a Facebook page was launched (currently at over 3,300 likes); planning meetings were held; and the word spread. At every opportunity, hundreds and sometimes thousands gathered at meetings at churches, civic associations and most recently the Nassau County Legislature to voice their strong opposition. When it became clear that a political solution was not forthcoming, Westbury Village Mayor Peter Cavallaro formed a legal committee to try and decide if legal action could be taken to stop the proposal. I was proud to be asked to serve on the committee.
In the end it was decided that indeed it appeared the NOTB side-stepped local and State law in selecting the site. A lawsuit is to be filed today at 2PM seeking an injunction to stop the deal from moving forward. What makes this particularly interesting is that in addition to the Village of Westbury and the homeowners who reside near the site (one of whom I represent), the plaintiffs to the lawsuit will be the Town of North Hempstead and the Town of Hempstead. [NOTE: For the non- Long Islanders who read this blog, Towns on Long Island are like mini-counties, for example the Town of Hempstead has twenty-two villages completely or partially in the Town with a total population of around 800,000 people]. The reason why this coalition is interesting is that the Town of Hempstead is the core home base of the powerful Nassau County GOP while the Town of North Hempstead has been a bastion of the Democratic party since 1989. Interestingly, North Hempstead was formed during the American Revolution when British Loyalists in the south and the American sympathizers in the north caused a split of what was just called Hempstead; in 1784 the revolutionaries formed North Hempstead and the Tories ruled Hempstead. This petition against the Casino is a rare example of bipartisanship in Nassau County.
While the case has many legal nuances that have to be argued and decided upon, the politics of the case are also interesting. NOTB (like all OTBs) is a patronage mill – when the Dems control the Legislature, the jobs go to the Dems, when the GOP is in power, they get the perks and the pork. So right now it is headed by longtime GOP operative Joe Cairo; Cairo dodged a bullet many years ago when GOP District Attorney Denis Dillon decided to take a pass on indicting Cairo for “discrepancies” in his law firm escrow account. The NOTB Board are all hand-picked by the GOP; it is highly unlikely that they did not advise GOP County Executive Ed Mangano and GOP Majority Leader/Legislature Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves about their site choice. Both have now declared their opposition to the site but have said their hands are tied as the decision where to put the Casino is entirely in the NOTB’s hands. Earlier this week, Gonsalves refused to put up for a vote a Democratic-backed resolution to unseat the entire NOTB Board. That led to the unusual spectacle of GOP Mayor Cavallaro at the public podium loudly telling Gonsalves her actions were “shameful.”
In fact, Mayor Cavallaro deserves much credit for taking this on despite the GOP’s control over the NOTB.Normally, Nassau County Republicans are expected to tow the line and stand in unison on the side of the party. Frankly, before I became involved, I sniffed around to see if there wasn’t someone or some entity throwing money around to stop the project. (The folks who run the video slots and gaming at Aqueduct and other nearby locations came to mind, for example). But so far, all I have seen is that the Mayor’s efforts are being driven solely by a concern for the residents of his community. He welcomed the participation of Town of North Hempstaed Supervisor Judi Bosworth who added the sharp talents of Town Attorney Liz Botwin to the legal committee. Yesterday, the Town of Hempstead jumped on board as the momentum of the litigation and the coalition was barrelling full-force to the courthouse. Local reporters who have covered Nassau County for decades could not believe their eyes at yesterday’s press conference as they saw elected Dems and Reps standing side by side on an issue.
A Casino next to the Roosevelt Field and Source Malls and within 500 feet of residential neghborhoods in an already clogged and crowded commercial corridor is a terrible idea. We will argue today that it is also an illegal idea. Will the judge see it that way? I don’t know – our arguments are strong but so are the forces that want the $20 Million per year the Casino will bring to the County. Nassau OTB officials would not speak on camera Thursday, but said they are going ahead with their plans at the Fortunoff site. The agency said state law exempts them from needing local approval. We’ll soon see. But win or lose, I thank the NOTB for picking the Fortunoff as it showed that a grassroots effort can mobilize the citizenry and that elected officials can occasionally put politics aside to do what’s best for their constiuents. Will this become a regular thing? I wouldn’t bet on it but I’ll take what I can get.