Pulled casino item sparks debate

Pulled casino item sparks debateBy BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

Members of the public eager to hear and participate in the Ridgecrest City Council’s discussion about a meeting with the director of the Interior Department regarding the proposed casino were surprised once again when the only casino-related item on the agenda was pulled before the meeting started.

“We pulled it in open session around five o’clock,” said Mayor Peggy Breeden. “There were about three or four people out here … we went through about 15 minutes of discussion.”

The council must approve the agenda before going into closed session, which precedes the 6 p.m. public meeting. There is occasionally discussion beforehand, but the early portion of the meeting is attended lightly, if at all, by members of the public.

According to the council, the body couldn’t proceed with the agenda as presented with two members voting to approve, two voting against and one abstaining. Ultimately, in a 4-1 vote, the council agreed to move forward with an agenda that excluded the casino discussion item.

Being removed from the agenda, however, made the casino became an eligible topic for the public comment portion of the meeting — where it dominated the discussion.

“This particular item has come up in the past and has been pulled … we only learn about it at the last minute,” said Skip Gorman. “I worry if it’s some sort of administrative bullying.”

Gorman asked the council to provide a more detailed explanation, even if it’s an “awkward or embarrassing” one.

Breeden said that the initial discussion will be available to the public once the council recording is uploaded to the city’s website.

Timbisha Shoshone Tribal Chair George Gholson reminded listeners that a previous council had already voted 3-2 to approve a Municipal Services Agreement and land sale, which began of the process of establishing an Indian casino in the business park immediately south of the main China Lake entrance.

“We’re all aware of the controversy and the discussions that took place,” said Gholson. “The people on the city council’s attempts to undermine the agreement has me wondering – where is the integrity? I would hope as we move forward that the commitment the city made by approving the agreement would be upheld. We have integrity as a tribe, and we hope our partners have the same.”

Still, casino opponents persisted that the city didn’t have proper assurances that the tribe wouldn’t interfere with water rights, cannabis ordinances or the acquisition of land.

“Chairman Gholson is on the record stating that the tribe will never sell, carry, condone or have any type of cannabis activity in the city of Ridgecrest and has apparently called these concerns ‘ridiculous.’ Yet my understanding is that the tribe remains unwilling to amend the MSA to address these concerns,” said Ricky Fielding during public comment.

Fielding brought up other early negotiations between the city and the tribe regarding a 38-acre housing development near the center of town.

“One landowner in Northern California had no legal recourse as sewage from the neighboring casino’s broken septic system leaked onto his land,” said Fielding. “Concerns about the tribe’s plans for other properties within the city seem quite well-founded to me.”

Concerns about water rights have also been a topic of discussion. Fielding mentioned specifically an instance of the Agua Caliente tribe suing the Coachella Water District for water rights and prevailing.

“Regarding the water issue – is there gold in the water here? There’s got to be something in the water that makes it so precious that there’s a big fear we’re going to take a lot of it,” said Gholson. “Is there a big market for water here?”

While his questions were rhetorical, his words were met by murmurs and chuckles from the audience with instances of “he needs to go to our [Groundwater Sustainability Agency] meetings” being heard. The importance of groundwater in our valley has been the topic of heated discussion by many agencies in the valley for the last several years.

Gholson later clarified that he was under the impression that any wells on the proposed casino site would produce water with high salt content, and the tribe expected to pump and pay for water from the IWV Water District.

He also added that the reason the tribe declined to specifically address the above items in the MSA was because they had no desire to reopen MSA discussions. He said the tribe would be willing to make an addendum down the road stating it would not export water, deal in cannabis, seek additional trust lands or pursue large-scale retail, or it could include these in the tribal-state compact.

Gholson has said as much on more than one occasion, but members of the public continue to demand contractual agreements on these topics.

“I’m highly, highly disappointed in the behavior of a couple of council members,” said Lori Acton during public comment. Acton voted for the casino as a previous member of council and is new employed by the tribe.

“It calls into question what was done on previous council. And we had integrity and we did things the right way and we did our due diligence. To not carry out your word, that’s hard for me. Because that reflects on me, too.”

“I don’t think there have been any actions of our council that haven’t had integrity,” Councilmember Lindsey Stephens said later in the meeting. “And I think the person questioning our integrity should consider their own actions — because they did violate the law by voting in the casino and immediately taking a job with them and presenting themselves trying to sway our decision. That is not upholding integrity.”

Acton was warned by the city’s legal representation on two occasions when she took employment with an entity following a favorable vote on the city council – once with Pertexa Healthcare Technologies, after the city awarded that company an economic development grant, and again with the tribe, after the city approved the MSA and land sale.

Stephens clarified she was specifically referring to Government Code 87406.3, which bars elected officials within one year after leaving office from appearing to influence administrative or legislative action involving permits, grants, contracts or sales of goods or property.

Breeden said the item would be on the agenda for the next council meeting, which is scheduled for Wednesday, March 21. Meeting start times vary, but will be posted with the agenda a few days prior. For information visit ridgecrest-ca.gov/ridgecrest-city-council.

Pictured: Councilmember Lindsey Stephens. Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2018-03-09