By Bryce Abshier – Contact Bryce@thevosm.net
At Tuesday’s meeting of the Belleview City Commission, Belleview’s eight “Internet Café” or “Fish Games” establishments were a topic of debate. City attorney Fred Landt proposed amendment 2023-08, which had no actual effect on the City’s current position regarding these potentially illegal gambling businesses.
“There was nothing in the ordinance intended to allow any illegal activity, honestly this amendment to the ordinance is just to set this particular provision out as a separate paragraph rather than perhaps being overlooked at the bottom of a very lengthy paragraph that is already there. It does not change your ordinance, it does not change the city’s position regarding this situation,” explained Landt.
As discussion followed, Belleview City Commissioner Ray Dwyer felt it was time to revisit the entire internet cafe ordinance. “I’ve been in contact with quite a few citizens since the article in the Voice,” said Commissioner Ray Dwyer. “From the citizens that have called me, they’re uncomfortable with the cafes in general,” he explained. “The consensus feeling, and I kind of agree with it, it has created some traffic throughout the city that we really don’t want.”
The Voice article referenced by Dwyer featured an interview with Eric Carr, Director of External Affairs for the Florida Gaming Control Commission. In the interview, Carr stated unequivocally that slot machines, including those commonly called fish tables or fish games, are illegal. “Slot machines are illegal in Florida. There is no exception under Florida law for so-called “skill based” slot machines. That is a myth,” explained Carr.
Carr went on to say “A municipal ordinance that attempts to offer safe harbor for such illegal slot machines has zero effect and provides no safeguard against prosecution. Consequently, owners and operators of any “adult arcade” or “internet café” offering illegal slot machine gaming are subject to both civil and criminal penalties.”
Commissioner Bo Smith believed these businesses were operating under a legal loophole. “One of the things I want to point out dealing with the article… was something we discussed when it all started, is why they’re able to be here,” said Smith. “The state attorney basically said, what the chief (Belleview Chief of Police Terry Holland) told me was a loophole, as long as they have certain games, it is legal,” Smith added.
Commissioner Mike Goldman said he too would be in favor of revisiting the entirety of the ordinance. “If you’re thinking that you’d like to revisit the entirety of the ordinance, I’d be willing to second that motion,” said Goldman. “If there is a majority of us that would like to do that then we can open it up and have another public hearing about it,” he added.
Belleview Mayor Christine Dobkowski compared the Fish Games businesses to car washes. “I’m just going to reiterate what my concerns were when this went to a public hearing last time. If we take a business, that is a legal business in the state of Florida, that is conducting their business legally… if we just pick a certain type of business that maybe our citizens don’t like, then I have to ask where do we stop? People don’t like car washes, do we not allow car washes then?”
Some may argue the difference between car washes and internet cafes is that car washes are not actively being raided by state criminal justice agencies. In recent months, the Florida Gaming Control Commission performed statewide raids in what they called a “significant takedown of illegal gambling operations”. In the month of May, Gaming Control Commission Agents seized assets, cash, and illegal slot machines in Ft. Pierce, Delray Beach, St. Petersburg and Tampa. A sample of headlines from news affiliates around the state include “Gaming officials crack down on illegal gambling across Florida” by Fox13news.com, “Adult arcades: More arrests made after statewide raid of illegal slot machines” by Treasure Coast Newspapers, and “Arcades on alert: Several Treasure Coast arcades voluntarily close after FGCC raids” by CBS12.com.
Commissioner Dwyer shared experiences he had with these businesses while working in law enforcement in Belleview. “Being retired from the police department, I can tell you for a fact that I have been to certain calls where people did not get paid the money they were supposed to be paid. I can tell you that there was a security guard involved in using narcotics while working,” said Dwyer.
“There are businesses in town where I’m sure the people working there are using drugs,” replied Mayor Dobkowski.
“Yeah, but they’re not armed, sitting outside,” replied Dwyer.
Commissioner Ron Livsey found Dobkowski’s car wash analogy to be profound. “I think the analogy that the mayor used is really important. If you don’t like a car wash, then you don’t like a car wash. If you don’t like an internet cafe, then you don’t like an internet cafe, but we can’t get rid of everybody because of somebody’s opinion” said Ron Livsey. “They had 18 (police) calls in two years… Wawa has more than that in a week,” Livsey added.
“But why are they only having that many? Because they’re not reporting them,” replied Commissioner Smith. “You can’t say that they’re not reporting them,” answered Livsey. “They’ve got security guards that might be handling some of those.”
Livsey did not believe many in the community were opposed to internet cafes. “We had this for months going on with internet cafe meetings and if you remember correctly, when we came down to the votes, not one single person came in here complaining about internet cafes.”
“This only came up because of the Voice articles,” said commissioner Livsey.
Ron Livsey was the only vote opposed to revisiting the internet cafe ordinance. The Voice will report details of the public hearing as they become available.