2/29/08

Union notches tribal surrender in Casino War

There won't be an Indian casino advisory measure on the June ballot in Sonoma County, but only because the Board of Supervisors thinks its pointless when federal and state officials will ignore the results.

After more than two hours of public testimony Tuesday, supervisors decided that spending $100,000 on an advisory vote would be a waste of taxpayer money when the target, the plan by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria for a casino near Rohnert Park, has virtual federal immunity from challenges and is practically guaranteed approval by the governor's office.

"It may make us feel better, but it will not make a difference," said Valerie Brown, who like the other four supervisors has consistently opposed casino development. "But do not ask me to lay off one person to fight a battle that we can not win."

Greg Sarris, chairman of the Graton tribe, said he was relieved because an election campaign would have been divisive.

Contacted after the supervisors' decision, he said it would have caused him to lose support within his tribe for his efforts to negotiate monetary mitigation measures with Rohnert Park and the county.

"It could have adversely affected the very positive and cooperative relations my tribe has with the county and the city of Rohnert Park," said Sarris, calling the proposal "a slap in the face."

The Rohnert Park City Council has negotiated a 20-year, $200 million deal with the tribe to offset effects of the casino and to pay for road widening, police and school programs. It also would funnel $5 million annually into the city's general fund.

Opponents of the Rohnert Park casino had lobbied Supervisor Mike Kerns to propose a ballot measure to the board, which had to decide the matter Tuesday because the board doesn't meet again until after the ballot placement deadline of March 7.

Kerns, attending the public hearing by teleconference from Georgia, argued that voters should have the opportunity to let federal and state officials know how they feel about casino developments in the future.

"I feel that if we are going to put the measure on the ballot, it should be countywide because we have additional proposals in the county," he said.

But his proposal died for the lack of support from Brown, Tim Smith and Mike Reilly, who indicated they agreed with legal advice from the county attorney. The fifth supervisor, Paul Kelley, was absent.

County Counsel Steven Woodside said federal law gives the Graton tribe almost carte blanche to a development project even if it's not on lands restored by tribal heritage.

Still, two hours of public testimony from almost four dozen people produced divergent views on whether there was any point to asking for the electorate's opinion, with most speakers arguing against it. In many respects, arguments mirrored issues raised during years of public hearings surrounding an environmental review on the proposed casino.

Former Supervisor Bill Kortum called for a public vote on a "glitzy Las Vegas edifice next to Highway 101, the kind of symbol that nobody envisions for Sonoma County."

But former Supervisor Helen Rudee, in a statement read by tribal support group leader Susan Moore, said the tribe's mitigation measures include funding "badly needed in so many programs." Her statement said the tribe is "acting as a model development" whose financial offers should not be rejected by a public vote.

The Rev. Chip Worthington, leader of the Stop the Casino 101 Coalition, said that, at the cost of about a quarter a voter, an election is worth the price of allowing "the right of Sonoma County residents to express themselves."

Shirlee Zane, executive director of the Council on Aging and a candidate for 3rd District supervisor, said a public vote should include the issue of gambling addiction among seniors. She said seniors are attracted to casinos that offer "cheap meals, transportation and alcohol."

Several leaders of environmental groups and construction trades unions said they opposed a referendum. They said the Graton tribe's proposal has their support because it has pledged funds to Laguna de Santa Rosa restoration and to using union labor on casino construction and hotel operation.

Mark Holmes of the Bay Institute, who noted the Graton tribe acceded to moving its casino proposal out of its original location near the San Pablo Bay, said "referendums don't always solve an issue and often you will be left with very angry people."

(pressdemocrat.com)

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