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Cyber café issue remains undecided

Date: 4/27/2011

April 27, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD — At one point City Councilor Amaad Rivera told his colleagues that he was "frustrated and confused" by what was happening at the April 25 meeting of the City Council designated to approve special permits.

By the reaction from the other councilors and the packed council chambers, Rivera wasn't the only one.

City Solicitor Edward Pikula's introduction of a different procedure than the one used by the City Council to approve special permits in the past transformed the session — one that was to have been focused on permitting three of the city's Internet cafés — into a confrontation between the council and the attorney.

After nearly two hours of hearing testimony and debate, the council voted to send the matter of a special permit for Triple Seven cyber café at the Allen and Cooley Plaza to committee for further discussion — something Pikula said state statue did not allow them to do.

The discussion bounced between questions in parliamentary procedure to the nature of the cyber café business.

The fracas obviously impressed the other two petitioners — the owners of the cyber café at 523 Belmont Ave. pulled its petition for a special permit for the time being and the one for 802 Main St. never came to the lectern when called.

The cyber cafés feature computers with high speed Internet access and customers can use them for any number of Web-based functions. The one that has caught the attention of municipal officials and law enforcement are the sweepstakes-based payoffs offered by the cafés that allow patrons to win money through casino-like games. Under current state law, these games are not considered gambling.

Jennifer Burritt, the owner of Triple Seven, had much support in the chamber and her attorney, Thomas Rooke, said she had complied with all of the requests made to her by city officials in the three months in which the business has been open.

With the cease and desist letter she had received from the city earlier this month, pending the outcome of a special permit hearting, Burritt went from having 30 computer stations to five. She would need the special permit to return all of the computers to operation.

One of her customers described her business as having a "safe, fun, clean atmosphere." Another spoke of using the computers to stay in touch with his two daughters in college.

Neighborhood activists, though, such as Joanne Gould, urged the council to set standards not just for this one business, but also for all of the cyber café s that have opened in the city.

"We're asking you to get some rules down to protect the neighborhoods," Gould said.

Rooke said Burritt's business does not allow children to use the computers — patrons must be at least 18 years of age. She has two employees at the present time and laid off several others because of the decrease in the number of computers that could be used. Ideally, she would want the business to be open from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. the following morning.

Mary Dionne, president of the Outer Belt Civic Association, said, "If you're going to hand out a permit for this one we need some clear cut facts."

Burt Freedman of the Forest Park Civic Association shared the opinion and stated that when the proprietors of the cyber café at 523 Belmont Ave. were asked to come to a meeting, no one showed.

Pikula explained the state's procedure on special permits varied substantially from how the City Council had operated in the past and considering the controversial nature of the businesses, he believed the council should act in a way that would lessen the chance of a petitioner seeking appeal in Superior Court.

The councilors, though, led by their president, Jose Tosado, decided to continue using the council's traditional method. No date has yet been scheduled for the committee meeting.

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