Casino MSA amendment passes 3-2

New provisions restrict groundwater pumping, cannabis cultivation and sales

Casino MSA amendment passes 3-2‘I resent the fact that someone will say that if I vote yes on this that I don’t like the community. I’m not a carpetbagger. I live in this town, and I go to sleep in this town. I’ve lived in this community for almost 50 years. And I vote what I think is best for the community, not necessarily what I personally think.’ — Councilman Mike Mower

Photo by Laura Austin

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By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

After heated discussion, the Ridgecrest City Council voted 3-2 to amend its municipal services agreement with the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe. The amendment address both groundwater pumping and commercial marijuana – two items that the public and council alike have asked to be addressed for some time.

The MSA, approved in 2016, was the first of many steps to bring an Indian gaming casino to Ridgecrest. The agreement includes provisions the tribe must adhere to, such as abiding by the city’s municipal code and payments to the city.

Several members of the public – both opposing and supporting the casino – provided arguments about the development’s pros and cons. However, the only actionable item on the agenda was for approval of the MSA amendment.

The new amendment requires the tribe, if it decides to start pumping groundwater at some point, to do so through the IWV Groundwater Authority and adhere to any regulations it imposes. The amendment also prohibits the tribe from engaging in commercial cannabis activities on any lands taken into trust, regardless of of what the city ordinances may be.

“A lot of the concerns were focused on these two issues because the tribe is a sovereign entity and it would be beyond the city’s ability to regulate,” said City Attorney Lloyd Pilchen.

Because tribal representatives made statements that the tribe had no intent to pump water in the first place, some members of the public and council asked why the amendment didn’t prohibit pumping outright.

“If the tribe said they didn’t want to pump water, we should have just let them say that in the amendment,” said Councilmember Lindsey Stephens. “I think it would have been a lot better protection.”

According to Pilchen, the tribe offered to make that the case, but legal counsel thought a written requirement to work with the Groundwater Sustainability Agency if tribal members change their minds in the future would be a more strict requirement. He added that this stipulation didn’t require any sort of approval from the GSA.

Councilmember Wallace Martin, who had requested the amendments in question, said that the entire MSA was still insufficient and premature, since the tribe still has to have the land taken into trust, complete a National Environmental Protection Agency review and undergo a tribal-state compact.

He also took issue with the presumed fact that the tribe apparently voted on the amendment in June but some members of council weren’t made aware of the amendment until August.

“This has been a pattern of operation from the tribe from Day 1,” he said, adding that things are kept secret until the last minute to give the council a sense of urgency as it makes decisions. “The MSA is literally not worth the paper it’s written on. These high-paid gaming attorneys know full well that the tribe’s sovereign nation status will supersede any other prior agreements. It overrides everything.

“Anyone voting in November should play close attention to exactly who votes ‘yes’ on this tonight. Because it’s not about the casino. It’s about recreational pot and allowing out-of-town Vegas developers to have access to our water table.” Martin went on for some 30 minutes, but was interrupted by Mayor Pro Tem Mike Mower who said Martin needed to give other councilmembers time to speak.

“I resent the fact that someone will say that if I vote yes on this that I don’t like the community,” said Mower. “I’m not a carpetbagger. I live in this town, and I go to sleep in this town.

“I’ve lived in this community for almost 50 years. And I vote what I think is best for the community, not necessarily what I personally think. Now I don’t have a problem with disagreeing on things, but the way you disagreed, I think, is repugnant.”

Stephens added that she believes the language prohibiting pumping and cannabis should be stronger in general and that she wishes for other provisions to be included.

Previously she requested that the tribe also be prohibited from selling gas, tires, tobacco and other products so as to not adversely affect local vendors.

She added that the amendment “obviously should have gone to the [tribal-city] committee first since it falls under the purview of the committee.”

The committee hasn’t met since its first meeting last November when the tribe initially rejected the requested amendments. Tribal Chair George Gholson said tribal members were initially opposed to any changes because they didn’t want to run the risk of renegotiating the entire MSA. But they ultimately agreed to some amendments.

In addition to the groundwater and cannabis provisions, the approved amendments makes the language regarding the tribal-city committee more clear, stating that the committee must begin meeting after the land is taken into trust, but is allowed to begin meeting beforehand if both parties so desire.

Mayor Peggy Breeden and Vice Mayor Eddie Thomas had little to say during the discussion, but there was significant input from members of the public.

“I would recommend that you not vote affirmative on anything that would progress the construction of the Indian casino,” said Lyn Whitcomb, who represented a group of community pastors and ministers. He said that while the members of his group weren’t interested in making Ridgecrest a theocracy or stunting growth, many church members believe a casino would “undermine good morals” of the community and lead to an increase in street crime.

Eleanor Jackson of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe criticized casino opponents and said they already weren’t taking care of their community.

“You worry more about what’s going to happen to your community, but where’s your pool? Where’s your splash pad?” she said. “If I had the money, I would pave the parking lot for your senior citizens. We’re giving you something.

“You guys say we’re going to bring prostitution to this town — it’s already here. Drugs are already here. Why should we bend over backward to make it seem like certain councilmembers have accomplished something? You have approved the MSA. We’re going to move forward, we’re going to take the land into trust and we’re going to bring the casino.”

Casino supporter Jennifer Slayton said approving the MSA was the best thing the council could do for the community since the tribe could elect to develop the casino on nearby county property.

“The thing that’s important to remember is we don’t have the decision to say everything that happens in our community. We have to make decisions about what we know we have control of,” she said.

“We know a casino is coming to our community. Frankly, I credit Mrs. Stephens for wanting such a strong MSA. This amendment puts in place the things we need to have to protect our city. We can’t keep stomping our feet and putting our heads in the sand saying we don’t want a casino. We want a casino that follows our laws, follows our values and follows our priorities.”

Scott Leahy agreed with Slayton saying that if the council “goons the deal, there is BLM land all around us, and they are going to get it. There is going to be a casino here eventually.”

“We can keep this thing within our control and work cooperatively or we can just drive them off and they’ll basically act as enemies,” he said. “I want our council to really act in good faith.”

Mike Neel, a member of the “CasiNO” group, pointed out that the escrow for the land sale will expire in October and the tribe is pushing for last-minute approval so the parties will have a reason to renew or restart the process rather than back out.

Lori Acton criticized casino opponents for a “racist tone” and specifically called out Stephens, saying the councilmember didn’t want a casino because it was an Indian gaming business.

“They just give and give and you want to take and take because ‘they’re Indians and they’re bad,’” said Acton. “They’ve taken the beating, and if it were me, I would have walked a long time ago. You say they can’t keep their word. Why? Because they’re Indian and we can’t trust them? That’s how it’s coming out. The problem is not the Native Americans. It’s how they’re being treated by this community.”

Gholson said that he also took issue with the attitudes of the casino opposition.

“I get called a liar by people who don’t know who I am,” he said. “Supposedly because we’re building a casino we’re predisposed to lying. These are the accusations that are being made — we’re liars, we’re thieves, we’re drug dealers. For a community that has, in Mr. Martin’s words, highly educated people, they seem to be really susceptible to propaganda.”

He added that his only interest in the casino was that it would help support his people and that every person has the personal choice whether or not they patronize the business.

Member of the public Ron Merrill agreed with the amendment, but also argued that it should be more strongly worded. He added that “the idea of being opposed to having a casino in our community as automatically being racist is ridiculous.”

“It doesn’t have anything to do with the character of Mr. Gholson or his race or his gender or anything,” he said. “It just creates an opportunity of this entity to bring negative effects into our community.”

Stephens responded to Acton’s accusations by saying her comments were being taken out of context.

“The tribes have a lot of sovereign immunities and special protections,” she said. “When our MSA was drafted, we didn’t understand those.”

She added that the Agua Caliente Tribe sued the Coachella Valley Water District for water rights and won. “So it’s a very serious concern. We want to be sure the mission of the base is protected.”

Stephens moved to have the amendment sent to the Tribal-City Committee for revisions, but the motion failed 2-3 with Breeden, Thomas and Mower voting no. Mower then moved to pass the amendment as discussed and was successful, with Martin and Stephens voting no.

Story First Published: 2018-08-17