Local governments push for more control over casino negotiations

Hoping to gain more control over casino negotiations, local governments in California are taking their case to the federal Department of the Interior.

Representatives of the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties are set to meet with Carl Artman, the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs at Interior, on March 7 when he visits California. These groups are seeking three things local governments aren’t currently getting in casino negotiations, said CSAC spokeswoman DeAnn Baker: adequate notice that negotiations are taking place; meaningful consultation in the process; and consent of the community where a casino would be placed.

“Most of these tribal gaming casinos have been set up in unincorporated areas, and there were significant impacts,” Baker said. “You’re taking these lands off the tax rolls.”

These principles are laid out in a Federal Tribal Lands Policy that CSAC created through its Indian Working Group. This was included in a Dec. 27 letter sent to Artman requesting the meeting from Yolo County Supervisor Mark McGowan. McGowan chairs CSAC’s Housing, Land Use and Transportation Committee and is a former head of the Indian Working Group.

“While the impacts of Indian gaming fall primarily on local governments and the citizens they serve, Indian policy is largely directed and controlled at the federal level,” he wrote. “Just as it is essential that tribes mitigate all off-reservation impacts caused by tribal gaming, it is just as equally important that local governments have a meaningful voice in the federal process.”

Efforts to reach Artman were unsuccessful as of press time. However, League of California Cities spokeswoman Liisa Stark said Artman and his agency have “been very receptive” to “starting a dialog” to give cities and counties a say.

While gaming compacts have been negotiated between the governor’s office and individual sovereign tribes, the federal government can have a say many in many steps along the way. The most obvious power is in granting — or withholding — federal recognition of individual tribes.

More important to individual casino negotiations in California, however, is the setting of standards for taking land into trust. This is the process by which land outside a reservation can become tribal land, not subject to local government control.

“This underscores what a lot of people have been saying for a long time — the impact on local governments is profound,” said Marilee Montgomery with the group Stop the Casino 101. “They’re not in the middle of nowhere anymore.”

Montgomery’s group was formed to fight a proposed casino for the Federation Indians of Graton Rancheria in Rohnert Park, a suburban community about 50 miles north of San Francisco. The fight for local control began with the counties, Stark said, but has increasingly moved into the league’s court as tribes have sought to move into more lucrative urban areas.

The local control issue has become particularly heated in the case of the Graton Rancheria. The tribe regained its federal recognition in 2000 after more than four decades in legal limbo. It hired Las Vegas-based management company Stations Casinos less than three years later in an ongoing attempt to get a casino.

Local Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, has been pressuring the administration for more information about the negotiations. The governor’s office, in turn, has repeatedly said it doesn’t comment on pending negotiations and has been following standard procedures.

“The governor’s office always considers local voters’ views when negotiating compacts,” said administration spokeswoman Sabrina Lockhart.

Lockhart said Schwarzenegger has been following the principles laid out in his 2005 Proclamation on Tribal Gaming Policy. The documents notes that “the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988  … requires the State to negotiate in good faith for the conclusion of tribal-state gaming compacts with Indian tribes that request such negotiations when those tribes have eligible Indian lands.”

Among the caveats listed are that the land “is not within any urbanized area” and that the “local jurisdiction in which the tribe’s proposed gaming project is located supports the project.”

The local jurisdiction of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, however, does not appear to be on board with the project. It has been exchanging letters with the administration since the project was first reported on last summer. On Dec. 28, supervisor Tim Smith wrote the governor “to express serious concerns … regarding the apparent initiation of compact negotiations” with the tribe. Not even knowing casino negotiations are happening makes it difficult to account for them in a county’s general plan, Smith said.
Smith received what he said was an inadequate response Feb 5. In her letter, Andrea Lynn Hoch, the governor’s legal affairs secretary, offered to meet with Smith and wrote, “It is the policy of this office not to comment on negotiations or discuss which tribes have initiated such negotiations.”

The board met Tuesday and voted down a proposal by board chairman Mike Kerns to put the question in front of county voters on the June ballot. Smith said he voted against the idea because it would cost the county election commission about $100,000 for a referendum that would have no legal standing.

“I felt like it would give folks a false sense of security that if they voted it down, it would have an impact,” Smith said. “It wouldn’t.”
However, the supervisors might take up the question again for placement on the November ballot. One indication of how Sonoma County voters feel may have come on Feb. 5. While voters around the state approved referenda allowing four expanded gaming compacts with 58 percent of the vote, 64 percent of Sonoma County voters said no. This was the highest percentage opposed in the state, closely followed by nearby Marin and San Francisco counties.  

Graton Chairman Greg Sarris said that if the supervisors had approved the vote, it would have made it difficult for him to convince his tribal members that they should continue to work in good faith with local government. He said he’s tried to “set a good example” by agreeing to allow unions and agreeing to a memorandum of understanding with the city of Rohnert Park to pay them $200 million in mitigation funds over 20 years.

Sarris acknowledged that these are actions he and the tribe took voluntarily. While he hopes other tribes will do the same things, he is against legally mandating such agreements with local governments.

“As an American Indian, I do not support anything that infringes on the sovereignty in exchange for the land and the lives that we lost,” Sarris said. “I think personally that Indians should make the choice to work with the local community. But I don’t think the federal government should require that. It erodes our notion as a sovereign nation.”

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