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Gaming and gossip

With the governor pushing to expand tribal gaming in California, even the rumor of more Indian slot machines is enough to put people on edge.

A tribal meeting’s minutes show the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians wants 5,000 more slots and a 10-year extension of its compact with the state.
When it leaked out that the Chumash had met with the governor’s office in the fall–asking to renegotiate its gaming compact to allow more slot machines–the neighbors became a bit overwrought.

“It’s an absolute death-knell for this community,” said Dr. Doug Herthel, a prominent horse veterinarian in the area and president of the citizens group Preservation of Los Olivos in the Santa Ynez Valley region of Santa Barbara County.

The tribe says conversations with the governor’s office were “nothing formal” and that the neighbors are making a big deal out of nothing.

“We have some very vocal opposition in this community who basically oppose every thing we do,” said Chumash spokesperson Frances Snyder. “These folks are very wealthy and have a lot of time on their hands.”

The Chumash were one of 61 tribes that negotiated gaming compacts with the state in 1999, and is currently capped at 2,000 slot machines at its Chumash Casino Resort in the town of Santa Ynez.

Last year, the governor negotiated new compacts with five of those gaming tribes: the Agua Caliente, the Morongo, Sycuan, Pechanga and San Manuel groups. The agreements, which were announced in the closing days of last year’s legislative session, stalled in the Assembly, would add as many as 20,000 slot machines over time–if they eventually are ratified by the Legislature. If the new deals are approved, that likely would encourage more renegotiations–like the one the Chumash are asking for.

The governor faces a tough task convincing the Legislature to sign off on the compacts, but that hasn’t stopped other tribal groups from coming forward with their own requests.

What has the Santa Barbara neighbors of the Chumash so agitated is a copy of the minutes from a tribal meeting in September, which have been circulating among gaming opponents.

According to the minutes, tribal chairman Vincent Armenta said the tribe is asking for 5,000 more machines and a 10-year extension on their compact. In the document, Armenta says the tribe had “received several letters of support for this re-negotiation and will be sending our term sheet back to the governor in the next couple of weeks.” But Armenta warned, “We have met with the governor’s office but there has been no progress yet.”

After POLO got its hands on this information, the group asked the members of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution placing a moratorium on more gaming in the county. And it began demanding answers about what it calls the “ongoing negotiations” between the governor and the Chumash officials. “The governor’s office has been absolutely stonewalling us,” said Herthel.

But it’s not clear that the “ongoing negotiations” have been all that ongoing.
“Generally we can’t comment on the status of negotiations, or even confirm whether they are happening,” said governor’s press aide Darrell Ng.
Chumash representatives wouldn’t confirm the substance of the meeting minutes, but sent a statement from Chairman Armenta.

“In 2006, we were initially part of the group that had informal discussions with the Governor’s office. At that time, we asked for the same thing that other tribes asked for. However, we dropped out of that group and are not in discussions with the Governor’s office.”

Frank Molina, a former chief of staff to Assembly member Simon Salinas–now working for the Santa Ynez band–confirmed that the meeting did take place in the fall. And the tribe got a letter back from the governor’s office in December. “But it was basically, ‘We can’t do anything this year. We’ll get back to you when we can,'” Molina said.

The tribe currently is involved in a lawsuit with POLO over its purchase of 6.9 acres of land near its current casino. The tribe says it wants to build a museum and public park on the property–not expand its casino operations onto the parcel.

A little more information might help ease the minds of local government officials. When contacted by the Capitol Weekly, Santa Barbara County Supervisor (and former state Assembly member) Brooks Firestone said that all he knew was that “there are strong rumors of a significant expansion” of Chumash gaming.
“The whole direction has been toward community-tribal agreements,” said Firestone, adding that he’s concerned about any deal that moves forward without community input.

“Nothing happens without an agreement locally, that was my impression.”
The governor says the five pending compacts would bring over $500 million into state coffers. That number is dubious according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Last year, the compacts died in the Assembly in part because Democrats wanted more labor protections included. The compacts have also worried some who say that the state doesn’t have the resources to give adequate oversight to the expanding gaming industry.

Of course, simply asking for help from the governor’s office is a far cry from having a deal.

But the anxiety surrounding even very preliminary negotiations provides a good indication of just how rancorous the debate over any new compacts will be.

Contact Cosmo Garvin at
cosmo.garvin@capitolweekly.net


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