Lacombe city council is considering whether to reverse a 23-year-old ban on VLTs.
Council approved first reading of a bylaw rescinding the bylaw that banned the gambling machines on Monday and set a public hearing for Aug. 9.
Coun. Reuben Konnik, who brought the issue forward through a notice of motion, said he has discussed VLTs with a number of residents and has heard no opposition to the return of VLTs.
“I certainly would not be opposed, for sure, a public hearing or whatever else we can do to get some feedback on that.”
“I would totally agree we need to do some sort of public engagement,” said Konnik.
Coun. Thalia Hibbs said it was a big decision when VLTs were removed and it will be a similarly big move to bring them back.
“I do feel a question on a ballot would be the most appropriate way of getting feedback on this one. Because I do feel this is a pretty big change for our community.
“I think I’m going to the minority on council on this one but I think that would be my preferred method. If we don’t go that route then I think we should be definitely having a full public hearing.”
Hibbs was concerned that it may be difficult to get enough public input in the middle of the summer and at the tail end of the pandemic.
“This isn’t great timing for this,” said Hibbs, who feared there could be backlash if people felt council was “trying to pull a fast one on the community.”
Hibbs’ motion to put the question on the Oct. 18 municipal election ballot was defeated, with all other council members voting against.
Konnik said he did not believe that VLTs would be seen as a big issue by the community.
“Some time has elapsed and I don’t think people think it’s a really big deal at all to have VLTs in our community.”
Konnik said he agreed with Coun. Don Gullekson, who suggested they get public feedback before deciding whether to put the VLT question to the electorate.
“The feeling I’m getting is it doesn’t need to be a question to the electorate, that it’s just something we can go ahead and do.”
VLTs were removed from Lacombe after a pair of plebiscites were held and a majority of voters narrowly supported removal in both cases.
During the 1998 election, 1,147 voted for removal and 1,132 voted to keep them in Lacombe. After that vote, the town requested that the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Commission remove the town’s 30 VLTs.
VLTs were introduced in Alberta in 1991 and there are now about 6,000 of the machines in 800 bars and lounges.
The gambling machines proved controversial, with nearly 40 communities holding plesbiscites on whether to allow them. Ten communities voted to remove them, including Lacombe, Sylvan Lake and Rocky Mountain House in central Alberta. In April 2020, Rocky Mountain House council voted to overturn its ban.
In 2017, a bar owner in Sylvan Lake organized a petition to lobby council to return VLTs. However, the petition did not meet all of the necessary requirements under the Municipal Government Act and the initiative fizzled.