Anticasino activists are expected to submit more than 20,000 signatures to City Council today in an attempt to banish gambling halls to the fringes of the city.
Casino Free Philadelphia will also need Council support to put a question on the May primary ballot asking voters to prohibit casinos within 1,500 feet of homes, houses of worship, schools, playgrounds, parks, libraries and civic centers.
If successful, the drive could wreak havoc with the state's plans for two slots parlors in Philadelphia.
Typically, putting a charter change on the ballot requires 12 Council votes, but the anticasino activists have taken advantage of a provision that allows for a simple majority - nine of 17 Council votes - if the ballot question is accompanied by 20,000 valid signatures.
Council support remains uncertain - few have committed to voting for the measure. But casino opponents are looking to Councilman Frank DiCicco, whose district encompasses the two licensed sites, to lead the charge, and the seven at-large members up for reelection to follow.
Casino Free Philadelphia counted its 20,000th signature shortly after 3 p.m. yesterday, said Daniel Hunter, another coordinator. The group is composed mainly of residents who live near the two proposed casinos on either end of the Delaware waterfront.
The group has fallen short of its stated goal of 40,000, but is still expected to have more than 25,000 signatures after the final tally last night.
Presenting the petition to the clerk of Council today starts a 10-day period for verification of the signatures. The city solicitor must also examine the form of the ballot question to ensure it meets legal standards, then Council will vote on it.
The proposed change to the Home Rule Charter, coupled with state restrictions already in effect, would relegate casinos to a few industrial sites in deep South Philadelphia, including the northern section of the Navy Yard, according to Casino Free Philadelphia coordinator Anne Dicker, a former candidate for state representative.
The city's two licensed casinos are SugarHouse, near Fishtown; and Foxwoods, along the South Philadelphia riverfront. The two operators were awarded licenses Dec. 20 by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
They have not yet started construction, but are expected to begin operating in 2008.
If the casino siting decision appears to be under serious threat, there would likely be a showdown with state legislators and Gov. Rendell, who backed the gaming law as way to reduce property and wage taxes.
Legislative leaders, who backed off attempts to preempt the city's zoning regulations for casinos, had warned they would revisit the issue if the city interfered with casino development.
"This is why some in the legislature wanted preemption, to keep local laws in mind but to try and keep the ability to achieve property tax relief," said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Minority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson).
A fight with the state is one that a number of Council members don't think they can win.
"This is too big an issue to play chicken," said Councilman Frank Rizzo Jr., who said he had not decided whether he would support such a referendum. "There's a lot of people who, when you play chicken, will call your bluff and you lose."