SNOW HILL – Controversy over legislation permitting Worcester County service clubs to host slot machines for charitable fundraising has emerged this week, after a letter was sent to local state legislators asking that a bill be drafted.
The letter was not discussed at the most recent Worcester County Commissioner meeting, on Jan. 15, when a public hearing on slots for service clubs was held.
Commissioner Virgil Shockley said the Jan. 18 letter was his idea.
“The letter went out at my request,” he said. “There was a consensus among the commissioners. We have asked [Delegate Jim] Mathias to introduce the bill allowing Worcester County to be added to the existing bill.”
The legislation needed to be introduced by the end of the week, he said, and the commissioners would have missed that deadline if they had not asked for the legislation in their Jan. 18 letter.
The commissioners met on Jan. 15 and held a public hearing on slot machines at service and fraternal organizations that day but did not take action. The commissioners do not meet again until next week on Tuesday, Feb. 5.
“We couldn’t vote on the 5th because the deadline would have passed,” Shockley said.
Shockley was mistaken on the deadline, Mathias said on Wednesday.
“We have time,” said Mathias.
The legislation is being drafted as requested, according to the delegate. Feb. 1 is the Senate bill introduction date, but legislation may be introduced later by going before the Senate rules committee. The House bill introduction date is not until Feb. 8.
The commissioners’ letter, signed by Commission President Jim Purnell, reads in part, “a majority of Commissioners are conceptually in favor of state legislation to add Worcester County” to the service club slots law, although it does not go any further and express firm support for the legislation.
Several commissioners are disturbed that the letter was sent without talking it over.
“I thought it was inappropriate without discussion,” said Commissioner Bud Church. “It wasn’t discussed anywhere, and I was kind of opposed to it until we had time to discuss it.”
The commissioner, when asked earlier this month whether the letter should be sent out, said he thought it should not.
“I’m having a real problem with this because I don’t think that letter should have been sent,” Commissioner Louise Gulyas said. “This has really bothered me. This is what people accuse us of and it never happens.”
Gulyas said she did not see the letter before it went out.
As a rule, the commissioners do not take any action based on consensus, preferring to take a formal vote.
“That’s the thing that has angered me about this, that one of the commissioners took it upon himself to push it through,” Gulyas said.
Commissioner Linda Busick never saw the letter and did not find out that it had been sent until more than a week later when Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan brought it up at a City Council meeting.
Meehan later said he was surprised at the contents of the letter.
“I thought I had missed something,” he said.
Shockley said he wanted to have the legislation in front of the commissioners on Tuesday to make sure they knew exactly what they were voting on.
“We did not vote. We haven’t voted,” Shockley said.
Busick said, “Any decision to support that legislation absolutely has to be at a public meeting.”
Meehan said the town’s position on slots is firm.
“The town of Ocean City has always been in opposition to any form of increased gambling activity in northern Worcester County or the Ocean City area,” Meehan said.
Nonetheless, the town council has not taken an official position on service organization slot machines. Meehan said he, as mayor, opposes slot machines at service organizations.
If the bill allowing slots at Worcester County service organizations is passed, Meehan said, “Some consideration should be given to increase the percentage that should be given to charity over and above 50 percent. Why not increase that amount to 75 percent, or 80 percent?”
Under the existing law, service clubs and fraternal organizations in eight of nine Eastern Shore counties are permitted to host five slot machines per lodge. Only members or their guests may use the machines, which are not available to the general public, and half the proceeds must be given to charity.
“If you’re going to give it back to charity, give it all back,” Gulyas said.
Church said the portion to charity should be higher. Increasing the donated amount would make it more palatable, he said.
“I do have a problem with it being 50-50 with the amount of money they’re collecting,” said Church.
Gulyas’ position is clear. “I’m absolutely against slot machines,” said Gulyas. “I can’t say yes for one and no for another.”
Church is troubled by the pending vote on the matter.
“I’ve got really mixed emotions. I am not a proponent of slot machines. I’m really having a struggle with this,” Church said. “Part of the reason I may vote for it is there’s so much funding being cut for social programs.”