Tribal-City Advisory Committee reinstated

Tribal-City Advisory  Committee reinstatedGeorge Gholson, Timbisha Shoshone tribal chair, during Wednesday’s meeting of the Ridgecrest City Council. — Photo by Laura Austin

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By BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

Plans for the Timbisha Shoshone to begin operating a casino in Ridgecrest have hit some snags over the last few weeks. Despite Ridgecrest City Manager Ron Strand’s trip to meet with James Cason, associate deputy secretary of the Department of Interior, in support of the casino project – the federal government has yet to make a decision on taking the land into trust and has also asked for a National Environmental Protection Act review.

Additionally, a staff report from Kern County, which has remained silent on the project until now, cites a number of policy, financial, and public safety concerns regarding the casino (see related story, above). The report also implies that the development may be required to undergo a California Environmental Quality Act review, in addition to NEPA review.

However, tribal and city representatives have reported that two major concerns – water use and marijuana cultivation/sales – are in the process of being addressed in the Municipal Services Agreement. The Ridgecrest City Council also voted to reinstate the Tribal-City Advisory Committee to continue a discussion of concerns.

The decision came after another long casino discussion during Wednesday evening’s council meeting, with not everyone in support of committee resumption.

“I think we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on this item,” said Councilmember Wallace Martin. “We’re spinning wheels and spending time and spending money ... all of that should be done after the land is taken into trust, never before. I just don’t see the need for it. I for one am kind of exhausted with the issue and would like to get on with some other things.”

“I’ve never seen an issue divide the community in the way that this one has,” said member of the public Jeff Scott. “Every council meeting I’ve attended just provides another venue for people to express their angst and anger with one another and call each other names.

“I don’t think providing another venue for people to do that will solve anything. I think it will only continue to stoke the flames. I see no value in arguing before we have a solid foundation for what decisions we’re making and how these agreements will be put into place.”

Tribal Chair George Gholson was willing to reinstate the committee, but says the meetings need to have specific purpose and should directly address specific issues.

“I can guarantee you beyond the shadow of a doubt that I am not looking forward to another meeting,” said Gholson. “But there have been a lot of issues that should have been discussed. The point of those meetings are to work things out.”

He added that with all the trouble the tribe went through to have the MSA approved, he is hesitant to agree to anything that might reopen it for discussion.

But Councilmember Lindsey Stephens argued that this was the entire purpose of the committee.

“The MSA says the city and tribe will establish a permanent committee to address concerns of any matter within the scope of the MSA,” said Stephens. “If we’re not going to be talking about amending the agreement, what’s the point of meeting?”

Gholson said the tribe already sent a proposed addendum to the MSA with assurances that it will not export water and will not take part in the cultivation, distribution or sale of marijuana in the city.

Concerns arose during public comment when locals learned that the tribe established a commercial cannabis operation in Death Valley Junction. Mike Neel read comments that Gholson had made last year saying the tribe’s cannabis endeavors were “not recreational on any level” and were strictly part of a medical collective.

“This is unquestionably a retail operation,” said Neel, who had information on the tribe’s current shop. “What happened to the comments back in November?”

“This is not November and this is not 2017,” responded Gholson. “This is not some big secret that is going to be devastating to anybody. Marijuana is legal. We’re not doing anything illegal and we’re not doing anything nefarious.

“Yes I said those things, but things changed. Tribes have the right to change their mind to move forward and develop economically. I’m not ashamed of it. If anybody wants to ask me anything, my number is on the internet at timbisha.com.”

In a later interview, Gholson clarified that the tribe’s Death Valley activities would have no impact on its plans in Ridgecrest. “The MSA would prevent us from changing our plans with the city,” he said. “The waiver of sovereign immunity – even though [opponents] say it ‘has no teeth,’ the city can definitely sue us, they can stop us, they can get an injunction. We have to comply.”

The authority of the MSA was brought into question last year when the tribe attempted to circumvent the NEPA process in favor of a Tribal Environmental Impact Report. While assurances of adhering to NEPA were in the MSA, the city’s legal counsel admitted that the language was in a non-legally binding section of the document.

Despite concerns, the consensus of council was that reinstating the committee was for the best.

“I’m not one to have meetings for the sake of having meetings,” said Mayor Pro Tem Mike Mower. “But we only had one meeting, and a lot of good came out of that.”

Member of the public and casino supporter Scott Leahy said the committee would be a good place to hear everybody’s side. “Even if they decide against taking this land into trust, they are going to locate a casino out here,” he said. “They are going to succeed and they are going to get a casino. I think it would be in all of our best interests if the city and the tribe sat down and talked.”

“There are things that you have choices about and things you don’t get to choose,” said Jennifer Slayton during public comment. “There are a lot of people who seem to be under the impression that if we decide we don’t want a casino in our city, the casino will go away and we won’t have to work with the tribe anymore. The fact of the matter is, the tribe has been working for 15 years to get to the point where they’ve been told this is the community where they need to be.

“It may be in the city, it may be in the county, it may be out in Inyokern, but it’s going to be here. Instead of letting the tax revenues and the benefits go to the county while we get whatever the negative impacts are, let’s get every positive impact we can out of it.”

But Stephens said there was no guarantee the casino would end up in the Indian Wells Valley as the tribe has pursued several other locations in Southern California.

“The tribe has relocated this project multiple times,” she said. “To say that ‘it has to be located here’ – I haven’t seen that document.”

Gholson clarified that if things with the city fall through, the tribe is looking at federal BLM land in the Ridgecrest area as a possibility for the development, in which case the city would lose most, if not all of the benefits specified in the MSA.

“I’ve never been secretive that I’m not supportive of the casino,” said Stephens. “I’ve also said that if it comes, I’d like to make sure that it comes in the best way it can.”

Mower made a motion for the committee to be reinstated, giving both the city and the tribe the option to contact Strand if there is a specific topic or concern that requires discussion or action.

The motion passed 4-1 with Martin opposing. Meeting agendas will be on the city’s website at www.ridgecrest-ca.gov.

Story First Published: 2018-05-04