More questions crop up for casino

By BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

As the News Review went to press, community and casino interests gathered for a public input session hosted by the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe to collect comments on draft documentation relating to the development of the proposed casino.

But a grassroots effort is simultaneously forming to challenge the legitimacy of the casino development on two main fronts — 1. that the agreement, which would allow the development to move forward without originally promised environmental and impact reports, was signed by an unauthorized federal bureaucrat; 2. and that the legally binding nature of promises made by Tribal Leader George Gholson, whose lawful right to that position has also been questioned in at least two open lawsuits, may mean the city has no way to enforce the conditions relating to the original land sale.

— Background —

Residents first heard about a potential Indian casino coming here in early 2016, and that news ignited months of heated debate. The city held weekly meetings where the casino developers, the tribe, Ridgecrest City Council and members of the public discussed the pros and cons of a casino, but more specifically the results of relinquishing control of roughly 25 acres of land near the front gate of China Lake to a sovereign nation.

The proposed project centers around a 25,000-30,000-square-foot casino with roughly 350 slot machines and six card tables, plus and a retail shop, coffee shop and buffet, entertainment lounge, cocktail bar and meeting space.

A theoretical second phase of the project would add a 100-room hotel, additional dining options and a 50,000-square-foot multipurpose entertainment venue, though this phase is not guaranteed in the developers’ plans.

During this time, many local residents voiced excitement for a casino in Ridgecrest. Because our city has struggled to draw new businesses and has a problematic tax base because of the largest employer being a government agency, supporters argue that a casino would jump-start economic and tourism opportunities.

Some dissenters criticized gambling facilities as being predatory in nature, while others objected simply for moral reasons. But most remained concerned about how much say local government would have once land was sold to the tribe. Most residents who tolerated the idea of a casino suggested it should be farther away from the city and closer to the highway.

In June 2016 the council voted 3-2 to approve a municipal services agreement with the tribe. The agreement included a quarterly $100,000 “mitigation payment” to the city and a one-time payment of $80,000 to the Ridgecrest Police Department. It also specified $128,000 paid annually to the city for “critical municipal services,” such as fire and public safety, expenses for which may increase with expansion of the project.

Since then former Council-members Lori Acton (for the casino) and Jim Sanders (against) have been replaced by Councilmembers Lindsey Stephens and Wallace Martin, both of whom have been outspoken against the casino project.

— Alterations to the deal —

The aim of Thursday’s meeting was to collect input regarding the Tribal Environmental Impact Report. However, the TEIR did not include the process that was agreed to in the original tribal-city MSA.

More than six months after the passing of the MSA, the tribe announced that instead of undergoing a fee-to-trust process with the federal government, the tribe would buy the land and swap it with existing reservation lands in Death Valley. That act would bypass the National Environmental Policy Act process.

This proposal stirred up controversy earlier this year as the MSA explicitly states, “The tribe intends to ask the Bureau of Indian Affairs to initiate the federal environmental review process necessary to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act as a first step to taking said parcels into trust.”

According to legal counsel, the “whereas recitals” (where the NEPA assurance is mentioned) portion of the MSA is not legally binding, so the tribe is not technically in violation of the contract. But the tribe and developers heard heated criticism, specifically for opting for the expedited and less-expensive (and presumably less-thorough) TEIR process, but also for so quickly reneging on a promise in the MSA.

Additionally, the draft TEIR includes potentially doubling the number of slot machines and card tables during Phase 2 of the project. While aspects of the second phase were thoroughly discussed as early as 2016, additional machines and tables were never mentioned and would probably affect the amount of mitigation payment, since the city would be collecting no taxes from a casino.

— Legal troubles —

Establishing tribal use of land is a years-long process that involves numerous agencies, and the local land sale to the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe is not different. But to further complicate matters, Tribal Chairman George Gholson, who has visited Ridgecrest numerous times to advocate for the casino, is the subject of multiple lawsuits between the tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

According to the Indian Law Resource Center, Gholson is a non-tribe member who was appointed by the BIA in 2011.

Since then, former Tribal Chairman Joe Kennedy and the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe have filed multiple suits against the U.S. Department of the Interior, BIA and Gholson for the illegitimate takeover of the tribe.

Former BIA Assistant Secretary Lawrence Roberts, whose position ended when the new presidential administration took over, is also under attack from multiple organizations for unlawfully approving tribal land trust requests.

A lawsuit filed by “Stand Up for California” alleges that Roberts continued to approve trust acquisitions outside of his authority in the “midnight hour” before President Donald Trump was sworn in.

— Continuing concerns —

Water rights continue to be a contentious topic as California continues to recover from its four-year drought. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Agua Caliente Tribe who sed the Coachella Valley Water District for water rights.

As marijuana legislation loosens across the state, the Timbisha Shoshone tribe has begun cultivating and selling marijuana as Ridgecrest and Kern County have banned commercial cannabis activities.

These activities have left locals questioning what the tribe’s plans are and what they’re permitted to do outside of the MSA. Casino advocates dismiss the concerns as the tribe has expressed on numerous occasions that they have no intention of pursuing water rights, growing marijuana, opening gas stations or any other businesses outside of the casino project.

But members of council and concerned residents continue to point out that neither the city or any other local agency has any recourse should the tribe decide to pursue these endeavors.

Another concern brought to light last year was the employment of Lori Acton — who was allegedly paid $4,500 by the tribe after she lost her seat on Ridgecrest’s city council. She said that her role in the effort was only to coach the tribe on the Brown Act. City Attorney Keith Lemieux said that while her hiring did indeed raise a concern, he did not believe any law was overtly broken.

Many of those fighting the casino development note that their concern is not about the project itself, but about the need in perpetuity for the city to protect its interests while providing the necessary services, support and resources associated with the development.

Some have even speculated that, given all the changes the tribe has facilitated to the original agreement, the city may not even be obligated to what it originally signed on for.

Story First Published: 2018-01-12