City postpones action on gambling establishments

The Odessa City Council on Tuesday voted to postpone action that would have made it more difficult for game rooms to operate in the city.

Several council members said postponing the vote will give city administrators and legal staff more time to strengthen several proposed ordinance amendments and close any legal loopholes game room operators have previously used to skirt the law.

“Basically, we wanted more time to study the issue,” said Councilman Steve Thompson, who supported fellow Councilman Tom Sprawls motion to table the issue.

For example, Thompson said, council initially wanted to pass an amendment that prohibited game rooms from being located within 1,000 feet of another gaming establishment, church, educational institution, healthcare facilities public building or the boundary line of a residential zoning district.

But that plan had to be scrapped after City Attorney Natasha Brooks informed council that state law only allows cities to impose a maximum 300 feet location ban.

“I know it doesn’t make sense, but state law allows counties to pass an ordinance of 1,000 feet, but not cities,” Thompson said. “So, one of the things the city wants to do is see if we can work with the county to pass a countywide game room ordinance.”

Council was confronted by that very issue during Tuesday’s council meeting, when Midland Attorney Jason Hamm challenged the legality of the city’s attempt to amend their ordinance regulating game rooms.

Hamm, who made his comments after council had already unanimously voted to postpone their vote, told council their proposed amendments contained “a number of issues, inconsistencies and typos.” He also warned that some of their proposed efforts to more strongly regulate game rooms were illegal. He cited the 1,000 feet rule as an example.

Hamm, who said he was representing a client who owns a game room in Odessa, also accused the city of unfairly targeting gambling establishments.

He argued that game rooms should be allowed to stay open until 2 a.m., 7 days per week, rather than the city’s proposed 11 p.m. weekday closing time and midnight on weekends. Currently, the city doesn’t regulate hours for game rooms, so many of them are open 24-hours-a-day.

“Pool halls and dance halls are open until 2 a.m.,” Hamm said. “For some reason game rooms are being singled out.”

Hamm did acknowledge that many of these gambling facilities are a haven for drugs, illegal gambling, violence and many other crimes.

“My client is all for an ordinance that gets rid of the riff-raff,” said Hamm who blamed the illegal activity on game rooms owned by people who don’t live in Odessa. “In recent years we’ve seen an influx of out-of-towners moving in.”

According to Odessa City Police records there are at least 23 game rooms operating in Odessa currently.

The biggest problem, is that the city’s current ordinance does very little to govern game rooms Planning Director Randy Brinlee has said.

Police Chief Michael Gerke said police frequently bust these gambling facilities for operating illegally, and shut them down. But game room owners have been using a legal loophole to remain in business by transferring ownership to a spouse or other family member.

“The problem we’ve had is we’ll close one of these places down, but by the end of the week they’re open again and operating under a new owner,” Gerke said.

Under the proposed amended ordinance, if a game room’s ownership is transferred to another owner, it automatically is considered a new business and must adhere to all the new requirements being proposed.

For example, the proposed ordinance amendment would only allow new game rooms to open up in areas already zoned light industrial and heavy industrial districts Planning Director Randy Brinlee has said.

The businesses would be required to have 30 paved parking spaces plus one space for every one hundred square feet of floor area over 2,000 square feet.

Game room hours of operation would also be limited to 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and 8 a.m. to midnight Friday through Sunday.