Virginia: Unite Here Union Threatening Lawsuit Against Petersburg Over Casino Developer Choice

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Virginia: Unite Here Union Threatening Lawsuit Against Petersburg Over Casino Developer Choice
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Hospitality union Unite Here Local 25 said Tuesday that it is planning to sue the city of Petersburg, Virginia, over its decision to choose The Cordish Companies as its vendor and development partner for the city’s proposed casino project.

The Petersburg City Council made that decision to go with Cordish last week, discussing the issue in a closed session before finally making its unanimous vote in open session later the same afternoon. 

Cordish is a hospitality developer responsible for Live! casino-hotels in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Hanover, Maryland, as well as the Seminole Hard Rock casino-hotels in Tampa and Hollywood, Florida. They were one of five finalists being considered for the Petersburg casino – and the only one with which Unite Here was opposed. 

Union Wants Docs, Correspondence on Cordish Pick

Unite Here says it will file a Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit over that process, which abruptly ended a request for proposals (RFP) process and made Cordish the city’s casino vendor with little warning. 

“The City of Petersburg’s actions show a shocking disregard for the law and democratic norms,” Unite Here Local 25 political director said in a statement released Tuesday, according to The Progress-Index. “Petersburg had begun a competitive RFP process that should have proceeded with transparency and fairness. Instead, City Council apparently abused a closed session to discuss the selection of the casino operator. Residents of Petersburg have the right to open governance – a right the City Council doesn’t seem to respect.”

Unite Here is asking the city to share all documents and correspondence related to its selection of Cordish as the casino developer under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. If the city refuses to turn over that information, the union will then file its lawsuit in response. 

Petersburgh spokesperson Joanne Williams told the Virginia Mercury that the city had no comment on the lawsuit at this time.

At issue is what exactly was discussed at the April 24 meeting during the closed session. According to media reports and comments from councilors, the city council met with its financial advisor, Davenport & Co., in order to discuss a report from the firm. Davenport’s report named Cordish as the best option of the five bidders for the casino project based on currently available information, but recommended asking more questions to the three leading candidates before the financial advisor would make a final decision.

Bally’s Letter, Closed Session Questioned by Union

The union is asserting that the information provided to the public prior to the April 24 meeting – which included an agenda that did not mention the casino issue – wasn’t specific enough to let the public know what would be discussed during the session.

“The City Council’s discussion of the Davenport Report, rescinding the RFP, and selection of Cordish as the preferred casino gaming operator during the April 24 closed session violated FOIA,” Unite Here lawyer Paul More wrote in an April 29 letter to the Petersburg City Council, along with City Manager John Altman and City Attorney Tony Williams.

The union’s letter also raises questions over the city council’s decision to “rescind its previous decision that Bally’s Corporation would be the preferred casino gaming operation.” Altman signed a letter the week before the April 24 meeting which stated that Petersburg intended to pick Bally’s as its casino developer. 

The letter was addressed to Bally’s Senior Vice President Christopher Jewett, but was never sent. The city council has claimed that the letter was signed under duress, as it was facing pressure from the General Assembly under threat of losing needed legislative support for making Petersburg eligible as a host city for a Virginia casino. 

Virginia State Sen. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) has disputed that characterization, saying that she was engaged in an “honest collaboration” with the city council, and claims of ‘demands’ or ‘duress’ are “a blatant and transparent revisionist history.”

The Petersburg City Council has scheduled a special closed session for 4 pm on Wednesday afternoon, where it will discuss legal matters surrounding the casino vendor selection.