Casino opponents yesterday moved a step closer toward their goal of placing a proposed amendment to the city's Home Rule Charter on the May 15 ballot that would give voters the power to approve casino sites.

City Council's chief clerk, working with City Solicitor Romulo Diaz, yesterday accepted the 27,254 petition signatures submitted by casino opponents on Feb. 14.

Council President Anna Verna then said she would ask her colleagues to vote today on whether to put the issue on the ballot.

A ballot measure to amend the charter normally takes 12 of Council's 17 votes to approve. But today's decision requires only a simple majority because the opponents collected more than 20,000 signatures.

Yesterday's action starts a seven-day period for anyone opposed to the ballot measure to challenge it in Common Pleas Court. The charter requires such a challenge to include the support of 100 registered voters in the city.

The proposed SugarHouse Casino in Fishtown was studying a possible challenge yesterday. The proposed Foxwoods Casino in South Philly said it was too soon to say what it might do.

The state Gaming Control Board on Dec. 20 awarded casino licenses to Foxwoods and SugarHouse, based on a law passed in July 2004 that legalized gaming in 14 locations across the state.

If the ballot measure is approved, could city voters retroactively reverse a decision made by a state agency following a state law?

"That's an interesting question," Diaz said yesterday, declining to answer, but predicting that the city will soon ask him to study the matter.

Casino protesters cheered the news, delivered at the end of a six and a half hour Council hearing on seven proposed changes to how the city regulates casinos. Council took no action yesterday on those measures, proposed by Councilman Frank DiCicco, except to schedule another hearing on March 14.

Diaz testified at the hearing, praising the advent of casinos as "an historic economic development opportunity" and cautioning Council members about over-reaching in their authority since state law gives the Gaming Control Board control on deciding casino locations.

"The city's powers in this regard are limited," Diaz said. "We must respect the Gaming Control Board's licensing decision, or else we will face almost certain defeat in the courts and inevitably will lose any local land-use control."

The long hearing on a controversial subject at times caused flashes of anger. Councilman Jim Kenney objected when A.J. Thompson, of Fishtown, claimed that nobody wanted to listen to complaints from neighborhood residents about casinos.

Kenney noted that the hearing was five hours long by then, asking, "What have we been doing here? You need to tell the truth."

Thompson fired back about the wait to testify, adding, "I'm here as a resident. You're here because I pay you to be here." *