RAYMONDVILLE — A judge is questioning a tough, new ordinance that led Sebastian’s game rooms to shut down.
State District Judge Adolfo Cordova yesterday said Willacy County officials may have denied game room owners a chance to properly apply for permits to operate their eight-liner arcades.
In the civil case between the game room owners and the county, the judge ruled against arguments for summary judgment presented by both sides and ordered the case to go to trial.
Cordova ordered the game rooms’ attorneys to complete gathering evidence to prepare for an Aug. 19 trial date.
“I want you to do it within seven days,” Cordova said. “I promise you we’re keeping the August trial date. There’s got to be a catastrophe to move the August trial date.”
For nine months, four game rooms have been testing in court the new county ordinance that led about 10 eight-liner arcades to shut down last year in this tiny farm community that some had dubbed “Little Las Vegas.”
Last August, Judge Migdalia Lopez granted requests for temporary restraining orders to the Silver Star Game Room, Silver Express Game Room, La Victoria Game Room and the Silver Outpost, allowing the game rooms to reopen after they claimed the county unfairly rejected their permit applications.
“I’m not sure the county followed the exact procedure they should have in the statute,” Cordova said yesterday during a hearing in 197th state District Court.
In Sebastian, some residents expressed concern Cordova may have found fault in the county’s ordinance.
Joe Salinas, who helped lead the push to drive game rooms out of town, said the ordinance is stopping other game rooms from opening up along the rural neighborhood streets.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going Sebastian’s way,” Salinas, a radio station technical director, said after the hearing. “If it doesn’t go Sebastian’s way, Sebastian is open season. ‘Start your (game room) business in Sebastian.’”
During the half-hour hearing yesterday, Jason Mann, an attorney representing the four game rooms, argued county officials failed to notify the owners to properly fill out their applications for permits.
“They didn’t follow their own ordinance,” Mann told Cordova. “The permit was wrongfully denied.”
Mann argued game room owners may have improperly filled out applications because the forms were too complicated.
“This is not an intentional misrepresentation case. You’ve got to be a lawyer to fill out this application,” Mann said. “The applications were complete. There was no reason to be denied.”
However, attorney Ricardo Morado, representing the county, argued some game room owners’ applications contained false information.
At least one application listed one game owner while omitting the names of other owners, he said.
Morado also said the application process included unsigned affidavits.
The ordinance does not require county officials to notify game room owners to properly fill out their applications, Morado told Cordova.
“We were not required to send a notice of deficiency,” he said.
But Cordova questioned the county ordinance’s permit application process.
Cordova said county officials may have failed to notify game room owners to properly fill out their applications.
“I don’t think this initial application was sufficient,” Cordova said. “There’s no question they messed up in the application process but should we have had to send them notice that ‘You didn’t give us all the information.’ The county failed to send the deficiency letter to the owners.”
Cordova also noted the game room owners’ cases have languished in court for months.
On May 8, Cordova reset a hearing after Mann failed to appear in court on time.
“My main concern is to get this tried for this county,” Cordova told the attorneys. “This case has lingered forever. I consider myself very patient. My feathers don’t get ruffled easily but they’re getting perked up.”
Defending the ordinance
After the hearing, Sheriff Larry Spence, whose department oversaw much of the permitting process, said the applications were not complicated.
“They weren’t completed, didn’t list all employees, didn’t give information on proper owners,” said Spence, whose department denied most applications.
“They’re grownups,” he said of the game rooms’ owners. “It’s not our responsibility to take them by the hand and say you did something wrong. They have attorneys.”
Spence, who has said his many undercover operations have found game rooms illegally paying out cash prizes, described them as illegal gambling operations.
“Everyone knows what these things are. It’s been proven,” he said. “I drive around the county and Sebastian and it irritates the heck out of me, it’s so frustrating.”
Little Las Vegas
In Sebastian, Cheto Garcia lives across the street from the Silver Outpost, which apparently set up shop in a converted brick house next to a Family Dollar store.
At night, glaring headlights splash into his bedroom as cars pull into the game room just off Interstate 69.
Like Spence, Garcia believes the four game rooms have delayed their court cases to remain open.
“They’re buying time,” Garcia said after the hearing. “As long as they can operate without proper documentation, it’s free time to me.”
For the four game rooms, the decision to open up comes with big risks.
If they lose their court case, they could face fines of $10,000 for every day they operated under temporary restraining orders.
How we got here
About three years ago, game rooms turned this farming community into a destination for players.
That’s when as many as 10 to 12 game rooms squeezed into the narrow streets.
Like Salinas, some residents fear they bring organized crime into the neighborhood.
For years, Spence helped push county commissioners to approve an ordinance regulating game rooms in the county’s unincorporated areas.
Then in February 2018, commissioners approved the new ordinance to regulate game rooms in the vast unincorporated areas.
Soon, the ordinance, which required code inspections, led the game rooms to shut down.
Under the ordinance, game rooms are required to operate at least 300 feet from homes, schools and churches — and 2,500 feet from other eight-liner arcades.
It also hits game room owners in the pocketbook, setting fines of $10,000 a day for violations.
Meanwhile, the game rooms were required to re-apply for permits to operate their businesses.
After the sheriff’s department reviewed applications, the county granted permits to three game rooms.
In response, the Silver Star Game Room, Silver Express Game Room, La Victoria Game Room and the Silver Outpost argued the county unfairly rejected their applications, denying them their due process rights.
Last August, Judge Lopez granted the four game rooms their requests for temporary restraining orders, allowing them to re-open until they make their case in court.
On Feb. 21, Cordova denied the game rooms’ requests to remain open under temporary injunctions, setting the Aug. 19 trial.
After that hearing, Robert Flores, an attorney representing the four game rooms, said he would recommend the owners close until they get their day in court.
But the next day, the four game rooms re-opened.