Local News

Tuesday, Oct 15 2013 04:51 PM

County seeks options for banning Internet cafes

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    A couple enters the Lucky Lady Internet Cafe at 1713 20th St. in this file photo.

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BY JAMES BURGER, Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Kern County supervisors asked staff Tuesday to prepare a report on what it would take to draft an ordinance -- or revise an existing ordinance -- allowing the county to close down Internet sweepstakes cafes.

The businesses, according to Kern County administrators and lawyers, are illegal gambling organizations.

But they are also, said county Administrative Analyst Chase Nunneley, prone to suing cities and counties that try to close them down.

The Kern County District Attorney's office closed down nine of the cafes, triggering a series of lawsuits.

Those lawsuits are now under review by the 5th District Court of Appeal.

Kern County Counsel Theresa Goldner said that the quickest way to deal with the cafes might be to wait until the 5th District rules.

But Supervisor Leticia Perez wanted to move immediately to draft a ban ordinance on a "parallel path" with the criminal efforts being led by the prosecutor's office.

"They are a tremendous problem in my district," Perez said. "What else can we do?"

The county could, she was told, draft an ordinance banning the businesses.

If supervisors wanted to pursue that path, Goldner said, "my advice would be to first craft a very narrow ordinance that would not expose the county to litigation or at least would minimally expose the county to litigation."

But other supervisors were concerned about spending county time and money on an effort that could be resolved without further action.

Supervisor Zack Scrivner said he was inclined to wait until the District Attorney's case clears the court.

Ultimately Perez agreed only to pursue a report on a potential ordinance.

Deputy District Attorney Greg Pulskamp said the 5th District Court of Appeal is expecting a decision on the five cases before the court within six months.

He said the only gambling allowed in California are the state lottery, gambling at Native American casinos, games of skills at establishments like Bakersfield's Golden West Casino and marketing sweepstakes.

Pulskamp said the Internet sweepstakes cafes argue that they -- like fast food restaurants and grocery stores that hold sweepstakes -- are simply using the opportunity to win money as a marketing tool to sell Internet time or pre-paid phone cards.

But the District Attorney's office argues that, in reality, those businesses are actually selling the opportunity to win money or a prize.

That, he said, means it is illegal gambling.

The city of Bakersfield is also working on ways to combat the businesses.

City officials sent letters to cafe owners warning that "Las Vegas-style electronic slot machines" are illegal.

They have also warned cafe landlords that the businesses renting from them "may be illegal" under California law.

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