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“Fish Games”: City Rearranges Text For Meaningless Ordinance Change

By Bryce Abshier – Contact

(Thoughts? Submit your letter to the editor here.)

At a recent Belleview City Commission meeting, an ordinance related to Belleview’s eight Internet Cafés was amended by unanimous vote. The amendment has zero effect on the city’s stance towards these potentially illegal gambling operations.

At these businesses, patrons win points on electronic amusement devices. The points can then be redeemed for cash payouts.

When describing the amendment, City Attorney Fred Landt told commissioners “It makes no substantive change to your code. It makes this particular provision stand out a little more so that anyone that is reading it doesn’t get lost in a larger paragraph it was part of before.”

The provision of the ordinance that was amended to stand out more clearly reads “Nothing in this Article shall be construed to authorize or permit gambling activity which is contrary to Florida law; nor is it the City Commission’s intent to authorize or promote the use of machines, terminals, computers or devices (whether electronic or mechanical) which is contrary to applicable Florida law.”

No matter how the City of Belleview rephrases the ordinance, highlights certain provisions, or puts in bold that they do not permit illegal gambling activity, it is the opinion of the Florida Gaming Control Commission that slot machines and “fish tables” 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,” Florida Gaming Control Commission Director Eric Carr recently told the Voice. “The only exceptions are for slot machines located at 8 licensed pari-mutuel facilities in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties and certain tribal casinos,” he went on.

The Florida Gaming Control Commission (also called FGCC) is the Tallahassee-based agency responsible for all regulatory and executive powers in Florida with respect to gambling. In some other parts of the state, local law enforcement agencies are working with the Florida Gaming Control Commission in what is being called a “state-wide crackdown of illegal gambling”. As recent as Thursday, August 3, arrests were made by the Lee County Sheriff’s Office working in conjunction with FGCC, following raids of multiple internet café establishments.

Meanwhile in Belleview, city staff visit the cafés yearly to make sure they’re complying with Belleview ordinances. “Staff visits the cafés at least once a year to check the machines and issue new stickers,” wrote Belleview Mayor Christine Dobkowski in an email to the Voice earlier this year. “The police chief visits them regularly to ensure that they are complying with our regulations,” Dobkowski went on.

The Belleview internet cafés pay an annual device fee of $100.00 per gaming device and the city collected $53,500.00 in device fees for the 2022/2023 fiscal year. The amount collected would indicate that 535 game devices exist in Belleview amongst the eight businesses. When looking at arrest records from other parts of Florida, it is worth noting that charges for possessing illegal slot machines are stacked for each instance of possession. For example, Peter Brover, 64, of St. Petersburg, was charged with 40 counts of unlawful possession of slot machine devices following a raid of his Tampa-based café called the “Lucky Game Lounge”.

At the June 20th meeting of Belleview City Commission, City Attorney Fred Landt said that he believed the legality of these businesses to be debatable. “I will tell you that, right now, it is my opinion that the question of the legality of these internet cafes is open for debate. And the bottom line on my memo was, until the legislature chooses to visit this again, and outlaw, or the courts make it clear, I think that there is doubt,” stated Landt.

Landt went on to attribute Florida Department of Law Enforcement with a quote of “basically having more important things to do”.

“The other thing that I would tell you is a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was asked at a public forum why they’re not pursuing prosecuting these and their answer was that basically ‘We have more important things to do’. And so that’s where we are on this,” expressed Landt.

The Voice reached out to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to find out where exactly these businesses land on their priority list. Officials there said that FDLE is not the criminal justice agency responsible for internet cafés. “Florida’s Gaming Control Commission investigates Internet Café’s, not FDLE,” explained Gretl Plessinger, the Communications Director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

(Thoughts? Submit your letter to the editor here.)

In other matters discussed by the Belleview City Commission:

More RV Trouble

The drawn out RV saga on SE 55th Court in Belleview again reared its ugly head. Neighbors have long complained about an uncared for RV and its troublesome tenant. At an April Code Board hearing, it was decided that Brenda Turner, who owns the property where the RV sits, had 14 days to correct the situation. Turner did not, and daily fines began to accrue. The fines reached their alloted maximum and finally a $5,350.00 lien was filed on the property. Now however, things are at an impasse due to state law. Belleview cannot foreclose the lien because the property has homestead exemption.

This prompted commissioners to toss out some creative, outside-of-the-box ideas to help out the troubled neighborhood.

Commissioner Ray Dwyer discussed working with the property owner to have the RV removed. “Are we allowed to approach this property and say listen, we as a city will contract with a wrecker company to come get this off your property, if you’re agreeable to that,” Dwyer proposed.

Commissioner Mike Goldman even floated the idea of getting a group to offer to buy the RV. “There’s a couple of other options too that I’ve been thinking of in regards to that. We as a commission can’t do it… it seems like it would be a big can of worms to open up. Maybe somebody should just go offer to buy it,” Goldman suggested. “Maybe there is an altruistic society around, or one could be formed, that goes ‘Hey, I’m going to throw a little bit of money at this thing’ and deal with it,” he said.

The problem with those plans, as discussed by commissioners, is that the RV likely is not titled to Turner and she probably has no problem with it being there.

Neighbors of the RV voiced their displeasure with the situation during the meeting. “I don’t guess this is ever going to get resolved. I’ve totally lost faith,” one neighbor said. “Have you ever thought that maybe the reason she can’t produce a title or go get it is that its stolen? Have you ever considered maybe she bought a stolen RV,” the same neighbor added.

One neighbor did not understand why the situation cannot be resolved somehow legally. “I’m so tired of it. I don’t know why you all can’t figure this out legally. I have never seen such a pathetic governance in my life,” she said. “I’m going to get an attorney, and I’m going to sue the City of Belleview. I’m tired of this.”

(Thoughts? Submit your letter to the editor here.)

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