Published: Wednesday, August 18, 1993
Edition: THIRD
Section: METRO
Page: B7
Column: James Gill
Byline: By James Gill


Time to order dunce's caps for Mayor Barthelemy and each member of the City Council save Peggy Wilson.

Wilson was the only one to vote against approving the Rivergate lease Barthelemy awarded to Christopher Hemmeter, who promised to come in with a wrecker's ball and clear the way for construction of a huge and fancy casino.

Pleading with the council to approve the lease as he had negotiated it, Barthelemy warned that forces in Baton Rouge were "conspiring to dilute the city's control over the casino."

What control? The forces in Baton Rouge were always in a position to make fools of city government. Or, rather, to let the mayor and the council make fools of themselves.

To invite bids on the Rivergate lease before the state decided who should get the operating license made a certain amount of sense insofar as the four respondents presumably provided a reliable indication of its market value.

But the dumb part was to lock the city into a long-term lease with Hemmeter regardless of whether he got the nod from the state. The city could have held off signing the lease or written in an escape clause in case someone else got the operating license.

Disdaining such elementary precautions, the mayor and council rushed in and placed the cart firmly before the horse. The only pretext for the haste was the city's chronic shortage of money.

But hard times demand more, not less prudence, from government, and this game, as it turns out, was definitely not worth the candle.

When the lease was signed in April amid hoopla suggesting salvation was at hand, Hemmeter handed over a $15 million initial payment, which promptly disappeared into the black hole of the deficit.

That was not much consolation for the mess we find ourselves in now that Harrah's Jazz Co. has beaten out HemmeterCaesars for the license to operate a casino that state law mandates must be at the Rivergate site.

Hemmeter, having earlier made conciliatory noises and suggested that he was in favor of whatever was best for the city, has now come out blustering; he demands no less than half the action in return for the Rivergate lease and suggests that otherwise he will prove an obstructive fellow.

Hemmeter's hand had not been thought that strong, since the state licensee is entitled to run a temporary casino while the permanent site is readied. Thus, it appeared, Harrah's could start raking it in immediately and would be under little pressure to accede to any exorbitant demands from Hemmeter.

Not so, Hemmeter claims. His lawyers say nobody can set up a temporary casino without first securing both the operating license and the Rivergate lease. Tough talk is only to be expected from Hemmeter, who is naturally out to make the best deal he can, and he may be overstating his ability to delay the advent of a casino.

It doesn't much matter what he claims the law says; we can always wheel out a couple of Louisiana judges to put him right. For that matter, we can always change the law.

But such things take time, and if the city does have to wait longer than expected for the boons of the gambling era, the blame will fall squarely on the mayor and the council. If they had handled the lease negotiations with more finesse, the city would now be in the catbird seat.

The mayor and a couple of council members have suggested that they might insist that Harrah's tear down the Rivergate, as was envisaged in the Hemmeter lease, instead of renovating it, as is the plan approved by the state casino board.

Whether the city can order changes in the conditions of a state license is open to some doubt. What is certain is that, if the city had not been so indiscreet as to hand Hemmeter the store, Barthelemy and the council could now be putting the screws to Harrah's instead of standing by while Hemmeter does it.

Whatever Hemmeter extracts from Harrah's over and above the $15 million he has already paid the city is money that could have gone into the municipal coffers.

Hemmeter, moreover, would have been in no position to delay the advent of the casino if the folks at City Hall had handled their assignment with some smarts.

James Gill is a staff writer.

Illustration: Mayor Barthelemy --The council lost control of lease

Copyright The Times-Picayune Publishing Corp.