Council continues to vet casino liabilities

By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

Amid headlining discussions about the sudden closure of Pinney Pool (see related story, this edition), talk about the Timbisha Shoshone casino arose at last week’s meeting of the Ridgecrest City Council.

At the Feb. 1 meeting, City Attorney Keith Lemieux revealed that the tribe had circumvented the process outlined in the municipal services agreement and would apparently forgo provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act. Instead, the Department of Interior had granted a fee-to-trust, which would allow the tribe to swap a “mutually agreed-upon” parcel of land, subject to approval by the Secretary of the Interior.

Effectively, the change of course would remove some of the impact studies members of the city had put into place in order to protect local interests.

The council directed Lemiuex to write a letter to the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs, requesting adherence to the NEPA, and another letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, requesting compliance with California Environmental Quality Act.

However, citizen Mike Neel sent a copy of the city’s letter to the Department of the Interior, asking the reasons for departing from the NEPA — though not expressly requesting it.

The News Review called Ridgecrest Mayor Peggy Breeden to ask whether she believed the letter reflected the council’s direction. She said she believed it did, though she would have to review the meeting to make sure.

She added that councilmembers were given an opportunity to review the letter and give input. “Since we are not allowed to ‘reply all’ [in accordance with Brown Act requirements], I just assumed no one else had a problem with it.”

However, Councilwoman Lind-sey Stephens said she never saw the letter until Neel began circulating it.

Breeden said she recommended that Stephens and Councilman Mike Mower accompany city staff to a meeting with representatives of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, including Tribal Chair George Gholson. Breeden said she believed both the city and the tribe would benefit from the discussion.

“I do not believe this council should take one more step on this casino deal without having an incredible, highly technical gaming attorney,” said Councilmember Wallace Martin. “Lemieux is brilliant, but not in that field. We’re having meetings with brilliant and high-powered, highly skilled folks in that field, and we don’t have people like that on our side, as is evident by the confusion yet again.”

Martin continued that the process was being “rushed” and confusing, but Lemieux and Mower said they didn’t feel the same way.

According to Lemieux, the fee-to-trust process wouldn’t begin until summer at the earliest, and the governor and the state legislature still have to approve the tribe’s casino gaming compact.

He also said discussion for retaining a gaming-industry lawyer would be on the agenda for the next council meeting.

“It’s not something that will just happen overnight,” said Mower.

Councilmembers Martin and Stephens reiterated their concerns about the lack of communication between the tribe and the council, resulting in surprises like the news of the environmental review.

Lemieux said that City Manager Dennis Speer and Economic Deve-lopment Manager Gary Parsons would be acting as points of contact between the tribe and the city.

The council is scheduled to meet again Wednesday, March 1, at 6 p.m. at City Hall.

The agenda has not yet been released.

For more information, visit www.ridgecrest-ca.gov/ridgecrest-city-council.

Story First Published: 2017-02-24