Council hires tribal negotiations lawyer

By BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

For those keeping score, locals can log a couple more hours of casino discussion after this week’s meeting of the Ridgecrest City Council. Timbisha Shoshone Tribal Chairman George Gholson gave an update on the timeline for the impending Ridgecrest casino, and council also voted 3-2 to hire a Sacramento attorney to help negotiate the necessary tribal-state compact regarding the development of the gaming facility.

What followed was more heated discussion ranging from the tribe’s failure to adhere to a National Environmental Policy Act review to a former councilmember’s recent hiring by the tribe.

Following a lengthy discussion about wastewater management (which will be reported in next week’s edition), Gholson’s report said the Tribal Environmental Impact Report was days away from beginning and would be wrapped by sometime in October. He anticipates that the tribe will break ground on the 35,000+ square-foot development in April 2018. The gaming facility will be located south of the Naval Air Weapons Station front gate, near Desert Valleys Credit Union and may eventually include multiple restaurants, a hotel and a convention center.

Casino buzz picked back up earlier this year when council discovered the tribe would forego the NEPA review process in favor of the less stringent environmental impact report. While NEPA was mentioned in the original municipal services agreement between the tribe and the city — and it was the process discussed several times during meetings – the tribe is apparently not contractually obligated to comply with NEPA.

Member of the public Christina Witt questioned why council was “up in arms” if the tribe was still going forward with the Tribal EIR, similar to the state’s California Environmental Quality Act review.

Mayor Peggy Breeden said the city was not up in arms, but was planning for and anticipating a NEPA review from the beginning of negotiations. Councilmember Lindsay Stephens added that the NEPA process called for greater public involvement and would better protect the city’s interests.

“Wouldn’t it have been easier to just send me an e-mail saying, ‘Hey, we don’t like this TIER process. We’d prefer the NEPA process,’” said Gholson, who added that there has been inadequate communication between the city and the tribe. “Did any of you do that? No – we didn’t hear from everybody. It was brought to your public, but not to the tribe.”

When Gholson was asked if he would have changed anything upon such a request, he said he would not.

“This is about dollars and cents,” said Gholson, who said the TEIR process is significantly less expensive than NEPA. “Do I spend a million dollars when I can spend a couple hundred thousand dollars for the same thing?”

Councilmember Wallace Martin added that things could be “shockingly litigious” between the tribes and American governmental agencies, and council can “hardly say good morning without having the attorney present,” citing this situation as the reason for the lack of personal communication. Gholsen admitted that if council had requested any changes to the process, he would also have had to consult his attorney.

Stephens also asked Gholson why the TEIR process was so much less expensive if it was supposed to be just as thorough. Gholson said he didn’t know, adding that the tribe had never undergone the TEIR process.

Gholson also addressed the criticism the tribe received for consulting with former Councilmember Lori Acton, who was on the council that first approved the MSA for development of a casino. He said the tribe was not aware of any conflicts in hiring Acton as an advisor.

“We’re not close to any city government, and we don’t understand the Brown Act,” he said, referring to the code of ethics that dictates the behavior of public officials in order to ensure public participation and transparency.

“To me the Brown Act seems very cumbersome. We are not aware of how it functions.”

Acton was similarly scrutinized in 2015 when she took a job with Pertexa Healthcare Technologies, a company she voted to give hundreds of thousands of dollars in city funds to.

The council also discussed contracting with Sacramento-based law firm Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Gross & Leoni LLP to represent the city in negotiations on the tribal-state compact, which would be similar to the MSA, but between the state and the tribe. City Attorney Michael Silander said the city was advised to contract with a special attorney well versed in tribal law for this purpose.

The attorney’s hefty rate of $735 per hour with a cap of $10,000 was brought into question by several members of the public — others saying it was merely a drop in the bucket to protect the city’s interests.

“This just gives the casino opponents more opportunity to stop the casino,” said Scott Leahy during public comment. Leahy accused the firm of being “MSA busters” who specialized in undoing tribal agreements.

“This particular attorney’s firm busts MSAs?” asked Councilmem-ber Michael Mower.

“Yeah, that’s what the law firm does,” said Leahy. “If you’re wondering why people are up in arms about it, look up this group.”

A cursory Google search turns up the law firm working with groups opposing casinos in California, but Stephens argued that the city wanted only 14 hours of work at most from a single attorney. The scope of her work would be to look over the MSA and ensure that holes regarding the city’s liability would be covered in the compact.

“Our MSA has remedies in place for any disagreement between the tribe and the city,” said Leahy. “There are methods of resolution of problems, and basically this casino isn’t costing the city anything if we get that land sold.”

Stephens reminded Leahy and the public that while the land was selling for $5.5 million, the city would be lucky to get 10 percent of that amount once the money was split among all of the stakeholders.

Martin added that the issue of litigation could potentially far outweigh the amount the city would pay an attorney to protect the city now.

“In the past we had modifications to the MSA because of layman input,” said Ricky Fielding, who supported the item, during public comment. “Because the MSA was not reviewed as well as it needed to be, it needs to be reviewed again.”

Witt wanted to know which member of council recommended the specific attorney, but Silander could not divulge details from closed session. Witt implied that it was Martin and brought his trustworthiness into question.

Witt has been a vocal opponent to Martin’s candidacy and had complained that he was responsible for a hostile work environment when she was employed.

During open public comment, she asked him if he had received any human resources complaints while on council. He said no, to which she replied, “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear,” before leaving the podium.

When Martin questioned Witt for her “gotcha” approach, Witt said she took issue with an attorney recommended by Martin because of his association with the conservative “Abernathy Group” in Bakersfield.

She continued to question Martin’s residence and eligibility to serve on council and repeatedly asked Martin for the address on his driver’s license.

“You seem to continue to present and package things as if someone is doing something wrong,” said Martin. “The only ‘gotcha’ here is that we’re trying to protect the city.”

“I’m not the one who lied about my residence and didn’t change my driver’s license,” accused Witt.

Martin said he has been living and working in the valley for decades. When he discovered, during his bid for candidacy, that his primary residence was a few yards outside city limits, he rented a property inside the city and changed his voting address. He said he went a step further by purchasing property within city limits.

“I am extremely vested in the city in which I’m serving,” said Martin.

“If you spent half the time and passion and energy in trying to build up our city instead of trying to tear me down, you could probably do some good.”

Things came to a head as Martin and members of the public began shouting over one another. After several attempts from Breeden to restore order, she asked council to continue discussing the item at hand.

Stephens motioned to approve the hiring of the attorney. Mower and Breeden both said they had changed their minds and voted against the item. It passed with “ayes” from Vice Mayor Eddie Thomas, Martin and Stephens.

Story First Published: 2017-04-07