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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Oct. 8, 201910:36 PM EST

City Council approves ordinance to immediately close internet cafes

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City officials say it will take 10 days to begin issuing notices to business owners once the bill is enacted.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

Internet cafes operating in Jacksonville will have to immediately remove simulated gambling devices or close their doors.

City Council voted 10-9 Tuesday to amend Ordinance 2019-209-E approved in May that prohibits the possession or use of simulated gambling devices by commercial businesses.

If signed by Mayor Lenny Curry, Ordinance 2019-644 will eliminate a Feb. 1 deadline allowing cafes that have city-issued certificates of use to continue operating while they prepare to shut down or come into compliance.

The city code considers internet cafes, also referred to as internet arcades, a public nuisance.

That’s a position of Council Vice President Tommy Hazouri and Council member Ron Salem, but they opposed the bill Tuesday. They felt the six-month timeline approved by the previous Council was a compromise and a promise to the business owners and their employees.

“These establishments were told at the time, get your leases in order. Employees at these establishments you need to go out and find work because they are going to close in six months. At this point, this particular bill would now close them about three months ahead of time. I just don’t think that’s an appropriate thing to do,” Salem said.

Council member LeAnna Cumber, who introduced the bill approved Tuesday, said closing the arcades is a public safety issue.  

Cumber said her legislation is necessary because of continued criminal activity at the arcades since 2019-209-E was enacted, “including robberies, murders and deaths.”

She specifically points to the Aug. 12 shooting death of a security guard during a robbery at the High Score Arcade at 950 Edgewood Ave. N.

Cafe owners and customers dispute the assertion and argue that criminal activity is isolated to specific locations.

Attorney Kelly Mathis filed a complaint Oct. 1 in the 4th Judicial Circuit Court on behalf of Jacksonville cafe owners Triad Ventures Capitalists LLC, Chapman Enterprises of Atlantic Beach Inc. and Grand Arcade LLC challenging the city’s efforts to remove the businesses.

Cumber said the lawsuit shows the arcade owners have no intention to shut down and the city should not extend the additional time.

“There’s no indication that they’re working to get these machines out, they’re working to do something legal. There’s just zero indication,” she said.

“If you want these shut down, today is the day to do it and be done with it.”

Council members Randy White, Joyce Morgan and Brenda Priestly Jackson, who voted against the latest bill during a Sept. 30 committee meeting, held their position.

Council member Matt Carlucci changed his committee stance to vote against the legislation Tuesday.

Priestly Jackson said she believes shutting the cafes immediately would be a violation of the business owners’ due process. She argued the bill also establishes a “bad precedent” of accelerating the action of a past Council.

“That was one murder among 10 in August. We had 16 in July 13 in June, seven in September, and I don’t know if we’ve had any other legislation come before us that’s addressing any of the others,” Priestly Jackson said.

“Although, I value the life that was lost, to me it does not warrant us looking at a matter that was resolved by the prior Council on May 28. They’re not new facts,” she said.

The close vote caused shouting and outbursts from cafe supporters in Council chambers. An error in the digital voting system caused Council member Ju’Coby Pittman to record the wrong vote and defeat the bill 9-10.

Pittman, who supports closing the cafes, called for a motion to reconsider the vote that flipped the result.

Chief Administrative Officer Brian Hughes said it would take Municipal Code Compliance Division and Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office officials about 10 days to begin issuing notices to business owners.

JSO and the fire marshal moved June 17 to close 19 adult arcades after officials found at least 23 arcades in Jacksonville operating without certificates of use.

At that time, the city had identified 181 businesses using simulated gambling devices in Jacksonville.

The enforcement action resulted in 10 arcade closures. Hughes said eight arcades had documentation that they were pursuing certificates of use and could remain open.

However, Hughes added officials did find other code violations, such as improper electrical wiring, at some cafe locations. 

Five appealed the enforcement action with the city and won.

Hughes said there are 140 to 160 arcades operating in Jacksonville.

 

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