2014-10-02 / Front Page

Council Rejects Host Agreement

By Barry Bridges

By a narrow margin, the Newport City Council has declined to enter into a host community agreement (HCA) with the developers of the proposed casino at Newport Grand.

The HCA presented for the council’s consideration at its meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 24, had been negotiated by interim City Manager Joseph Nicholson and interim City Solicitor Christopher Behan. The contract would have set out more specific guarantees on revenues coming to the city, as well as enumerating other details such as community impact fees and local hiring goals.

With one exception, councilors’ opinions on the HCA mimicked their alignment on May 28, when the casino development was sent to the November ballot for approval. Councilors Michael Farley, Kathryn Leonard, and Justin McLaughlin once again lined up on the same side, voicing their opposition to the HCA draft. And Councilor Naomi Neville, who in May voted to place the measure before the electorate, also refused to lend her endorsement.

Neville commented, “Such an agreement should give substantial benefits to the host community. The [HCA] as presented is not strong, and barely makes good on what the developers have already publicly announced… It is simply not good enough to give us leverage.”

Before voting in the majority against the contract, Farley compared the process to what happens in Massachusetts. He maintained that an HCA must be in place prior to casino questions appearing on the ballot there. “In Rhode Island, the process is backwards,” he said. He further asserted that surrounding communities should also be entitled to impact fees.

Leonard also lodged her objections and felt that much of the agreement would be unenforceable, while McLaughlin took a broader view and reiterated his general hostility to an expanded casino and stated that there had not been enough time to properly study an HCA. “But I think the [HCA] is in some ways irrelevant,” he said. “It doesn’t matter, because I don’t want it and I don’t want gambling in Newport.”

Mayor Henry F. Winthrop countered with his remarks in support of the need for an HCA. “The fact is that it is the best document we could get,” he argued. “I know we asked for much more, but that’s the nature of negotiations. We need ‘casino insurance’ – that doesn’t mean we necessarily want a casino, but you need the insurance. And that’s what this [HCA] does.”

Similarly, Councilor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano felt that the agreement was in the best interests of the community, and Councilor Marco Camacho stressed that the HCA was above and beyond what the state had already guaranteed and that siding against it would be “doing a disservice to Newporters.”

Public comments offered by several residents and by casino developer Joseph Paolino did not move the councilors from their positions and the proposed HCA was defeated by a vote of 4 to 3.

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