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Ahead of Antioch Vote, a Local Casino Spends Big -- to Limit Gambling

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A sign in support Measure E sits outside the 19th Hole cardroom. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

A casino in the East Bay has poured more than $300,000 of support into a ballot measure that would limit the number of card rooms in the city of Antioch.

Right now, Antioch has only one operating card room, called the 19th Hole. If Measure E is passed, it would stay that way. Measure E would require voter approval for any new card rooms or expansion of any existing rooms, and limit where they could be located throughout the city.

At the heart of Measure E is the future of Kelly's Card Room, which state regulators shut down in 2012. The City Council wants to see it open again. It passed an ordinance last year limiting the city to just two card rooms. But for some, those limits weren't enough.

The 19th Hole is Antioch's only active card room.
The 19th Hole is Antioch's only active card room. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

"I personally don’t support more gambling in Antioch," said resident Lamar Thorpe.

Thorpe was recently removed from the city's Economic Development Commission for his support of Measure E -- a move he calls political and petty. He was among a group of residents who tried to pressure the city into strengthening its law last year.


Measure E supporters point to problems surrounding Kelly's as an example of why the new law is needed.

The owner of Kelly's has had trouble selling the establishment since it was closed in 2012 by the state's Bureau of Gambling Control for "lack of funds and probation violations." A deal with a group of investors fell through later that year, and more trouble followed.

In August 2013, the city granted a gambling license to Contra Costa County developer Tony Keslinke, who planned to reopen Kelly's. In October 2014, federal prosecutors charged Keslinke with fraud and money laundering. Keslinke pleaded guilty to two counts last year, and the City Council revoked his gambling license.

On their website, Measure E proponents accuse the city of mismanaging the Kelly's issue and of failing to close "glaring loopholes in our gambling laws."

The "Yes on E" campaign has been bankrolled to the tune of at least $310,000 by the California Grand Casino in Pacheco, a community on the west side of Concord. That outside involvement doesn't bother Thorpe, who said pressure was already coming from residents to strengthen its gambling laws.

"Sometimes you have to build coalitions to get the job done," he said.

But Antioch city leaders and opponents of Measure E say the California Grand Casino's involvement is driven by nothing more than greed.

A map of all local and active card rooms.
Here's a map of all "active" card rooms in the area. Kelly's Card Room in Antioch has an active license. If it can't reopen, California would have one less card room. The state has a moratorium on new card rooms until 2020. (Courtesy of California Gambling Control Commission)

In the February council meeting in which the measure was first discussed, Mayor Wade Harper said that Antioch was "being bullied."

Councilmember Tony Tiscareno said he was offended when he was approached at a grocery store by a paid petitioner.

"When I asked him what I was going to sign, he had no idea," he said.

Another issue that irritated the City Council was the cost to place Measure E on the ballot in June. Cities have to pick up the tab for printings, mailings and other election costs when ballot measures are introduced. The city clerk estimated Measure E would cost at least $132,771. That's a lot of money, said Councilmember Mary Rocha, who says Antioch has not recovered from the recession.

As a response, the council decided to add another ballot measure to the June election (adding more ballot measures doesn't cost too much extra, according to the city clerk). Measure G would eliminate the city treasurer as an elected position and make it appointed. Since the treasurer makes as much as a councilmember -- roughly $20,000 annually -- this would actually save the city money.

"It was my idea to eliminate the job," said City Treasurer Donna Conley, who has held the position for 12 years.

She admits that most of her duties have been absorbed by the city's Finance Department, and she calls the treasurer more of a ceremonial position.

"I’d rather see the city save the money rather than pay somebody to just basically sit there for a couple of hours and do a few things" she said.

Antioch officials say if Measure G is approved, the money saved over time will make up the costs of having to pay for Measure E.

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