County wants legal in on game room issue

Aug. 11—At least some members of the Ector County Commissioners Court are intrigued by the City of Odessa's proposed plan to slowly eliminate game rooms and plan to seek legal counsel as to whether they should follow suit.

On Tuesday night, the city council directed its legal staff to draft an ordinance stating the city will no longer provide business permits to game rooms within the city limits. The ordinance will also specify that existing game room business permits will not be renewed on their expiration date.

The council was told a similar ordinance was passed in Pecos four years ago.

There are nearly 30 game rooms within the city limits and roughly 35 in unincorporated Ector County.

Council members have indicated they are receiving a lot of complaints from constituents who believe the game rooms are unsightly and attract criminals. In addition, undercover Odessa Police Department operations have resulted in numerous arrests for illegal gambling.

Odessa Police Chief Mike Gerke and Ector County Sheriff Mike Griffis have both said bars create more calls for service than game rooms, but acknowledge at least some of the game rooms routinely violate Texas state laws prohibiting game rooms from awarding prizes valued at more than $5.

Undercover OPD officers have seized at least $50,000 from game rooms within the last eight weeks alleging the money was tied to illegal gambling. The Ector County District Attorney's Office has filed court documents asking judges to force the game room owners to forfeit the money.

Ector County Judge Debi Hays said she'd have to take several steps before suggesting a similar ordinance change within Ector County. However, Hays said the county may have to take some action because the city's game rooms may try to migrate into the county.

"While I'm not in favor of it or opposed, I would need to get visit with the county judge in Pecos, look at what the repercussions would be on the lawsuit side because that costs taxpayers' money. Then if it does pass the city, then that means the county would have to address it because it would create issues outside the city limits for our county, the residents and for the sheriff," Hays said.

While the council members said they've been fielding a lot of complaints about game rooms, Hays said she only gets calls about them "every now and then." Most county residents are more concerned about water issues, illegal dumping and road conditions, she said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Gardner said the city's idea makes sense to him.

"That was always the kind of way I thought it ought to work because if you didn't want to do them, just don't renew the permits or issue anymore permits. Seems simple to me, but I don't have a law degree. So we'll just have to look at and see," Gardner said. "I'm sure not opposed to eventually making them go away. For sure."

The majority of the people he speaks to are against game rooms, Gardner said. Personally, he also thinks some of the game rooms are engaged in illegal activity.

"I'm not saying all of them are this way, but there are some that just flat break the law and do what they want to do and the fines that they pay are inconsequential to the amount of money they make. So man, if you can pay a $1,000 fine and turn around and make 20 times that, who cares about a fine?" Gardner asked.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Armando Rodriguez said he believes municipalities have more latitude when it comes to ordinances than counties, but he is interested in hearing what the county's lawyers have to say.

Ector County Attorney Lee McClendon did not return a message seeking comment.

He tries to talk constituents into avoiding game rooms, but the problem is there aren't many entertainment alternatives for older residents, Rodriguez said.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Don Stringer said he has mixed feelings.

"I'm kind of on the fence when it comes to game rooms. I'm a real estate agent by profession and these game rooms are helping several of my friends rent buildings that are not otherwise rent-able," Stringer said.

If game rooms operate within the law, he sees no reason to shut them down, but he knows not all of them do, Stringer said.

So far, the county has done what it can by enacting stringent policies, he said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Greg Simmons said he's not a big fan of game rooms, but he'd like Hays, he'd like to hear what McClendon has to say.

"I think sometimes you got to be careful not to target an entire industry, but I'm assuming the city has gone through their legal counsel and feels like that's an acceptable way to handle it," Simmons said. "I would want to double check our side before we would be a part of that."

Most people who complain about game rooms are upset about the sheer number of them, Simmons said.

Ector County Judge-Elect Dustin Fawcett said if the county can legally prohibit game rooms, he's in favor of doing just that.

"I'm concerned about the human trafficking that's been linked with these facilities and the drug trafficking that's been linked with these facilities so we need to be strong in how we deal with them," Fawcett said.

Fawcett said he had not heard about human and drug trafficking being tied specifically to local game rooms, but he has heard about incidents statewide.

"I think that we're one of the top regions in Texas, if not the top region in Texas, for human trafficking and if this is playing even the smallest part in it, we need to take a strong stance on it in Ector County and make sure that that's not something that's happening here," he said.