City manager to go to DC for casino

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

City manager to go to DC for casinoBattle lines between proponents and opponents of an Indian gaming casino resurfaced during Wednesday’s five-hour Ridgecrest City Council meeting — which ultimately led to a narrow decision to honor a Timbisha Shoshone Tribe request to send City Manager Ron Strand to meet with the secretary of the Interior “in support of the casino project in Ridgecrest and the taking of Ridgecrest land into trust for that purpose.”

The primary division at the council level appeared to hinge on the city’s 2016 commitment to approve the land sale and a municipal services agreement, as well as the concerns — voiced by candidates elected since that vote — that the MSA did not adequately protect the city’s interests.

Councilman Wallace Martin said that bringing a casino to town is not on the same level of opening a bowling alley or a flower shop — “It’s a $40-million deal and it’s forever.

“My research shows this is the greatest risk and greatest liability this town has ever faced.” He said the best chance the city has in protecting its interests was in amending the MSA.

Tribal Chair George Gholson indicated at the meeting that he would be willing to enter into a new agreement with the city that addressed concerns — but not by re-opening the MSA.

Councilwoman Lindsey Stephens noted that the MSA includes a waiver of sovereignty. She said that without that waiver, the city would not be able to enforce the terms of any subsequent agreement.

The original agenda item — which was removed last meeting when the council could not get a quorum to approve it for discussion — proposed sending Mayor Peggy Breeden to travel to D.C. to voice support for the project.

The item returned on this week’s agenda, along with a request from Stephens to accompany Strand on the trip in order to address the city’s interests in the project.

Tribal attorney Mark Levitan said that the tribe offered to pay for Breeden — one of the two remaining councilmembers who approved the project — to accompany the tribe to D.C. “The mayor said she did not feel right about that. If the city feels it’s more appropriate to pay for the trip, that’s fine too.”

But he said the council’s support of the casino matters to people in D.C. “They read the papers. They understand there has been substantial opposition raised. They want to know — does the city still support the project?”

Levitan said that failing to indicate support for the project or sending someone who clearly opposes it would send a signal to federal officials that could potentially jeopardize the project.

Supporters of the casino cited the desperate need of the Indian Wells Valley to diversify its economic portfolio. A casino would drive up tourism, bring jobs and add additional revenue into the city, said supporters.

Martin said that casino studies have demonstrated that the impact on small towns is rarely positive. He repeated projections voiced by casino developers who believed that 90 percent of the traffic would come from within a 100-mile radius. If that is the case, he said, the city risks taking customers away from existing businesses and funneling that commerce into an operation that does not pay into the traditional revenue streams that benefit the city.

Stephens also questioned the city’s obligation to lobby on behalf of the casino project.

“The Secretary of the Interior has not requested a meeting with us. We have no documented proof of that from the tribe,” she said. The city sent the letter of support required by the MSA. “To me, it doesn’t seem like [the federal government is] wondering where we stand. If they were, they would ask.”

Councilman Eddie Thomas said he was dismayed to see the level of division in the community that has resulted from the council’s votes — boycotted businesses, dissolved friendships, “I even have people who have walked out of my church based on my decisions.”

“Our word means something,” said Breeden. “I don’t know what the vote would be today if we are not making that decision. We already made that decision. The decision was we will do what is necessary to bring in the casino.

“It’s not what is best for me, but what is best for the economic growth of the community.”

In Stephens’ request, she expressed her concern about the mandatory land swap — a deal the tribe apparently made with the federal government, signed in by a bureaucrat who allegedly lacked the authority for that action.

The change from the original deal to the land swap removes the tribe’s obligation to adhere to the National Environmental Policy Act, which would have analyzed environmental impact and opened the door for the city to mitigate any vulnerabilities.

Stevens said there was also precedent that could leave room for future disputes about water rights and cannabis operations. “We have talked numerous times about these concerns,” she said. “We want to see the MSA amended to provide language that is firm and without a doubt would protect us.”

Tribal leaders said that at this point adhering to the NEPA would unnecessarily delay the project.

From the public microphone, Scott Miller asked how far Stephens was willing to go to “jeopardize financials” in Ridgecrest.

“From my research, the casino jeopardizes financials in Ridgecrest,” Stevens said. “If this takes $27 million out of our community, that threatens our local businesses. So your question is confusing.”

“The current city council does not have the right to undo a contract,” said Scott Leahy. “That’s against the law.”

He also expressed the danger of opening the city up to a potential lawsuit if the council fails to live up to its end of the bargain.

However, Ricky Fielding said that, “the only termination of the agreement in the municipal services agreement is at the end of the 20-year term, or if the tribe is informed by the Secretary of the Interior that the United States will not take the land into trust or that the tribe may not conduct gaming activities thereon, then the agreement shall terminate 30 days after the tribe is so informed.”

Casino developer Nigel White said he does not want Stephens to come to D.C. “She’s out to destroy this project.”

Stephens offered a tearful defense of what she said were endless personal attacks on her by the casino proponents. “I just sit here, I’m kind, I do not say negative things about people — I just want to do what is best for my city. We really need to make sure we are protected, completely. You can still have your casino, but we need to make sure we are doing our part.”

In the end, Breeden, Mower and Thomas voted to support Strand’s trip to Washington, and voted against Stephens’ request to accompany him.

To review the full video of the council’s discussion, see www. ridgecrest-ca.gov. Select “City Council” under the “Government”?tab at the top of the page. The March 23 proceedings can be viewed using the “City Council Media Vault” link.

Story First Published: 2018-03-23