Casino discussed in private

Attorney declares ‘no reportable action’; councilwoman walks out

Casino discussed in privateBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

Members of the public arrived early to the Ridgecrest City Council meeting Wednesday evening for a chance to comment on a closed-session item pertaining to pending litigation with the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, which has been attempting for three years to build a casino on the property just east of China Lake’s front gate.

The council typically opens session to a largely empty chamber before promptly going behind closed doors to discuss sensitive items with the city attorney and top-level managers. The only items legal for discussion are property negotiations and pending litigation. For this week’s meeting, the council was set to discuss two cases of “anticipated litigation” — including one with Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, as well as a conference on property negotiations with Global Investment Enterprise, the developer of the casino.

For 40 minutes following the announced items of discussion, a stream of residents used the public microphone to express both opposition and support of the project.

“We continue to encourage the city council to oppose [the casino] and be steadfast against it,” said Lyn Whitcomb, pastor of Cornerstone Bible Church, who represented a group of 16 local pastors with a signed statement opposing the casino.

“Casino gambling undermines good morals and casino gambling produces moral, economic and social crises,” he said. “Casinos extract wealth from communities, weaken nearby businesses and hurt property values. The proposed casino would be bad news for the community. We know some faces and families behind the gambling statistics.”

Whitcomb said his elderly father struggles with gambling addiction and the casino would bring “legal, spiritual and social harm” to the Indian Wells Valley.

“I want to remind everybody that we build houses of worship. This is a house of state. We should keep those two separate” said Stephen Birdwell. “Don’t try to interfere with my rights. If I want to gamble, I’ll chose to gamble. The tribe and the city came to an agreement. Go for it, just approve it.”

Member of the public Mike Neel pointed out that the last two elected councilmembers openly opposed the casino. While one of the elected officials, Wallace Martin, has since resigned, Neel said they were elected “because people in this town don’t want a casino.”

“Ridgecrest has been saying for two decades that the city has a limited general fund,” said Steven Morgan. “This sale increases that very funding. It may be helpful to get tour busses to stop in Ridgecrest overnight rather than just being a food stop.”

The original land sale agreement expired after the buyers failed to deposit the necessary funds by the deadline.

According to developers, they were waiting on federal approval to accept the land into trust before making a deposit. It wasn’t until after the land sale expired that a signed letter from the Department of the Interior approving the land trust acquisition surfaced.

Council went into closed session to discuss the pending litigation. While there was “no reportable action” according to City Attorney Keith Lemieux, comments from Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens suggested that some sort of decision had been made.

“Tonight is a very sad night for Ridgecrest. Many decisions being made this evening are based on one thing – the love of money,” said Stephens, who is openly against the proposed casino project. “The decisions being made are ones that will destroy lives and families.”

A tearful Stephens said that she had fought a good fight, “But my voice has been silenced.”

She said that it was her youngest daughter’s birthday, “so for the rest of the evening I’m going home to celebrate.”

City representatives are not authorized to comment on closed-session discussions. For more on the casino, see future editions of the News Review.

For the remainder of the meeting, the council filled committee vacancies and took action to further the Downs Street widening project and approve a development for affordable housing. Details will be reported in next week’s edition.

Pictured: Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens departs the meeting early after delivering a brief statement about being "silenced" following the closed-session discussion. Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2020-01-17