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Bronson bingo still up in the air

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By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

It’s still unclear if a local hunger activist will open a bingo hall in Bronson. 

Who heard, said, wrote or read what are all playing a part in how locals perceive the issue and, ultimately, how it’s decided by town officials, according to comments at Monday night’s Bronson Town Council meeting.

Bill Brown, founder of The Children’s Table, an organization that helps feed thousands of Levy County residents each month, has been seeking to open a bingo hall in his establishment to help pay for the ever-rising costs of feeding the needy. 

When the issue was first brought before council on Sept. 10, Brown was given a green light to proceed. Only council members Berlon Weeks and Jason Kennedy opposed the motion, stating they thought because it was a form of gambling it might open the doors to internet cafes within town limits, a prospect vehemently opposed by the council in a new ordinance last year.

By the next meeting, on Sept. 24, Brown’s green light had turned red with the council’s 4-1 vote to prevent the opening of the bingo hall until Brown could provide more documentation and “hard numbers” about the charity’s funding.

Several members accused Brown — a 2011 Congressional Medal of Honor Society civilian award finalist for his efforts to combat hunger — of not being up front about donations the charity receives. Council members, after some talk around town, wanted to know why Brown didn’t disclose the fact that the organization asks that food recipients volunteer their time or make a $2.50 donation. 

Brown, who had already gotten approval and was only at the meeting on a zoning issue related to the proposed bingo establishment, said he wanted to know why the council didn’t ask the first go-round and later added that the donation was not mandatory. “Anyone who does not have money gets food,” he said. 

At Monday night’s meeting, Kennedy again brought up the donation that “wasn’t disclosed” as an argument against Bronson resident Edith Brown, who had shown up during public comment to give the council an earful about its treatment of Bill Brown that she had been “stewing” about since reading what happened at the Sept. 24 meeting. The Browns are not related.

Kennedy  dropped the issue of what was apparently not heard when Town Clerk Kelli Brettel made it known that, according to recorded minutes from the first meeting on the matter, Bill Brown had, in fact, disclosed the $2.50 donation. 

Still, the council said it was waiting for Brown, not in attendance at Monday night’s meeting, to come forward with the information it requested—all of which, in the case of non-profit groups such as The Children’s Table, happens to be public record, free of charge and available online.

Unlike the matter of the "undisclosed" donations, the issue of gambling wasn’t dropped by Weeks or Kennedy, despite Town Attorney Steven Warm’s opinion Monday night that a bingo hall would not necessarily open the doors to internet cafes.

Edith Brown said she didn’t know how one could equate a charitable bingo hall with gambling.

Audience member Natalie Thomas, who at the last meeting brought up the fact the stores in town sell lottery tickets, a form of gambling, Monday asked if coin machines such as the one in a store owned by Weeks’ father count as gambling.

Weeks said coin machines were not the issue.

But misinformation, in terms of what the public knows, is an issue, Kennedy said, at one point telling Edith Brown, “ You can’t believe what you read in the paper.”  One has to get the facts from the meeting minutes or by attending the council's meetings, he said, explaining that the 4-1 vote at the Sept. 24 meeting was to put the bingo issue on hold until more information could be provided by The Children's Table.

Kennedy, without naming or making a distinction between local publications, said newspapers are not a good source of information and complained that half of area newspapers are not represented at town meetings in Bronson.

The minutes from the Sept. 24 meeting — unanimously approved in Monday's meeting — record the vote as 3-1 in favor of requiring Bill Brown to bring back more information before being allowed to proceed. All five council members were in attendance at the meeting, though only four votes were recorded. Florida law requires council members to vote on all matters before them. 

Edith Brown said Monday she was most concerned with how the matter was handled. “I thoroughly resent the way you all treated Mr. Brown,” she said.

According to the minutes of the Sept. 24 meeting: “Councilman Edmondson said it was disgusting how this man was treated. Councilman Weeks said he should not have lied.”

Thomas, from the back of the meeting room, told Weeks on Monday, “It wasn’t what you said. It was how you said it.”

“Maybe I’m not the right person for the job. Maybe I should leave the Town of Bronson,” Weeks said, adding that his concern stemmed from trouble with past non-profits refusing to disclose financial information.

“That’s a totally different thing, Berlon,” Edith Brown said, adding that he was comparing “apples to oranges.” Later, she said of Bill Brown, “He should not have been treated as such, and it severely blistered me.”

At the end of the meeting, the council voted unanimously to approve Mayor Franklin Schuler’s “very satisfied” findings of his recent visit to The Children’s Table.

Edmondson, who has twice sided with Bill Brown in recent council meetings, said, “Ordinarily, I wouldn’t entertain (such an idea), but it’s for a good cause.” Bill Brown is not a “shyster,” he said. “This, I’m telling you, this man, he’s legit.”