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Bingo hall owner not giving up on debate

The first sign of a hot issue in Port Richey is an extra police officer standing in the back of City Hall during a council meeting.

The sign of a really hot issue is when they're needed.

The Port Richey City Council gave first round approval on a 4-1 vote late Tuesday night to repeal an ordinance that allowed commercial bingo halls back into Pasco County after 10 years of exile.

The bingo debate twice involved shouting in front of the council _ first between council regular John King and City Manager Vince Lupo, and later from Mollie Kolokithas, who opened a bingo hall after the ordinance passed. Later, officers had to break up a screaming match outside the council chambers involving former council candidate Jim Priest, his wife Debbie, and Kolokithas.

The vote on repealing Port Richey's bingo ordinance wasn't as close as many expected. Pat Guttman, who voted against the repeal last month, changed her mind after she said she got legal counsel from City Attorney Paul Marino.

That left only Dale Massad supporting the bingo ordinance. Massad said he supported the ordinance because it gave smaller charities a chance to make money on bingo.

Last fall, the council unanimously passed an ordinance that allowed a bingo hall to hold two bingo sessions seven days each week. County ordinance, for the past 10 years, has kept commercial bingo halls out of Pasco by limiting the days a hall could hold bingo to two a week.

A majority of council members have said they didn't know what they were doing when they passed the ordinance. They said they didn't realize there was a problem until charities that run bingo games questioned the new ordinance.

Tuesday night's vote likely sets up a legal battle between the city and the Kolokithas family. The family, owners of the local cruise-to-nowhere gambling boat, spent $1-million in February on a building and opened a bingo hall after the council passed the new ordinance.

Kolokithas family attorney, A. Brian Albritton, wrote in a letter to the council delivered Tuesday that the family would sue to keep the hall open. Albritton said the family was "encouraged that the proposed ordinance had drawn no opposition" and that the council had no rational basis to repeal the ordinance.

Marino and Mayor Eloise Taylor, both lawyers, said they believed the city would withstand a lawsuit. Both said the city is within its rights to regulate gambling.

"There is no constitutional right to gamble," Taylor said. "It is not a protected right."

Marino had drawn criticism during the bingo debate from citizens and council members because he used information from former mayor James Carter _ who now works for the Kolokithases. The information was Pinellas County's bingo ordinance, which allows for commercial halls.

Marino and Carter clashed Tuesday night when Carter told the council they were facing large legal liability.

"Please don't try to scare this council," Marino told Carter.

Carter backed off the talk of lawsuits, but he told the council not to repeal the ordinance.

"You made it," he said. "Live with it."

But the loudest criticisms of the council's move to repeal the ordinance came from Mollie Kolokithas. Her voice booming through the microphone, she said people were unfairly accusing her hall of taking money from charities.

"You are crucifying me," Kolokithas said. "What is your damned agenda tonight?"

Kolokithas has said, and repeated Tuesday, that her hall doesn't make money. "I go in the hole," she said. "Every day I go in the hole." Kolokithas said that repealing the ordinance would hurt the small charities that are getting money from her hall now.

"There are lots of charities out there that need help," Kolokithas said. "The council is saying, "The hell with the charities, beg for your food.' "

Taylor said that the repeal didn't mean Kolokithas couldn't have bingo at her hall, it just limited how much. The hall can still have bingo, can still be rented out and the Kolokithas company _ AMBAS Holdings _ can have its corporate offices there.

"We are not taking from her her right to operate," Taylor said.

Kolokithas, on Wednesday, said she didn't know when the family would sue the city.

"I think the emotion put it on the back burner," Kolokithas said. "I don't know when is a good time."

_ Matthew Waite covers Port Richey city government. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waitesptimes.com.

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