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Casino advisory measure sought

Councilman renews efforts to get countywide measure on ballot in 2010 By DAN JOHNSON, ARGUS-COURIER STAFF Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Petaluma City Council member plans to renew his efforts to get a countywide advisory measure passed regarding the construction of a proposed casino and resort complex in Rohnert Park.


 “When I last approached the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, their argument was, ‘Why does an advisory vote matter?’ But the governor should take public sentiment into account,” said attorney Mike Healy, a City Council member.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that he will take public sentiment into account before reaching compact agreements with Indian tribes to allow the construction of casinos.

Last year, Supervisor Mike Kerns and former Supervisor Mike Reilly supported putting an advisory measure on a countywide ballot, but Valerie Brown, Paul Kelley and Tim Smith did not. The seats of Reilly, Smith and Brown were up for a vote in the Nov. 4 general election. Brown was re-elected, as were Efren Carrillo and Shirley Zane.

In March, Carrillo and Zane both indicated that they support an advisory measure, but Kerns said that he no longer supported it, due to the cost of the measure, given the county’s financial problems, including the rising unemployment rate, and because the measure would have had no binding, legal impact. So, once again, there seemed to be only two of the needed three votes for passage.

Healy feels that some board members’ positions might have changed, and hopes to get an advisory measure on the June ballot. It would need to be approved by the board by February.

In 2008, when the board last discussed a possible advisory measure, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, announced it was taking preliminary steps to take land in Rohnert Park into trust for the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. But in June 2009, the Bureau of Indian Affairs announced that it was holding off on taking the land into trust due to a legal appeal filed by attorney Stephan Volker on behalf of the Stop the Casino 101 Coalition and some of its individual members, including Healy.

A decision on the lawsuit might not be reached by June, and so, the land likely would not be taken into trust by then.

If the Sonoma County Board of Supervisor agrees to put the measure on the June 2010 ballot, it would cost between $63,000 and $126,500, said Debra Russotti, election services supervisor for the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters.

The measure would cost 25 cents to 50 cents per resident, and there are an estimated 256,000 residents in Sonoma County, she said.

“The actual cost is uncertain, and it would depend on things such as how many pages are printed for the measure,” she said.

Meanwhile, Healy attended a meeting of the Senate’s Government Organization Committee on Aug. 25 that focused on Assemblyman Jared Huffman’s resolution, ACR 56, which wanted to “call upon the Governor to refrain from negotiating a tribal-state gaming compact, with respect to specified gaming proposals on non-tribal lands, until the land upon which the gaming will occur has been taken into trust for the tribe, the tribe has jurisdiction over the land and the local jurisdiction and the local community in which the tribe’s proposed gaming compact would be located actually support the project.”

The Petaluma City Council unanimously voted to endorse the resolution at its Aug. 24 meeting.

Seven of the 13 Senate Organization Committee members were present at their meeting the following day.

Huffman has been unsuccessful in his attempts to get a bill, AB 1443, passed in the Assembly that would require the governor to consider local support. So, he turned to the Senate to get a non-binding resolution passed. The resolution, ACR 56, originally concerned an Earth Week proclamation.

Huffman spoke before the committee on Aug. 25, and then five supporters, including Healy, and some 20 opponents conveyed their feelings.

“Graton Rancheria is trying to make a great show of support it claims it has in this county, and yet it is afraid of an advisory measure,” Healy said, subsequently noting that in a 2006 advisory measure, 79 percent of local voters opposed any effort by the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians to build a casino just south of Petaluma.

That’s the same tribe that owns River Rock Casino near Geyserville. Its land south of Petaluma, purchased in 2005, is 277 acres between Highway 101 and the Petaluma River, opposite Kastania Road.

After about 40 minutes, since no motion was made for a vote on the matter, the committee chairperson, Sen. Roderick Wright, brought the meeting to a close. He allowed Huffman to make a closing statement, in which he asked for a “courtesy motion,” an acknowledgment that the resolution was presented, but no one made the motion.

Wright then said that the resolution will remain with the committee due to the absence of a motion.

Sen. Tom Harman, the vice-chair of the committee, then said, “This came here as a resolution dealing with Earth Day, and now it’s dealing with Indian gaming. I have very serious procedural concerns and questions about this, and I have other concerns. I can’t support this resolution.”

Harman’s office was contacted this week, but he was unavailable for additional comment because he was out of the area.

No other committee members voiced their opinions at the meeting, although afterward, Sen. Pat Wiggins issued a statement.

“Although ACR 56 lacks the force of law and does not bind the Governor or Legislature’s future actions relating to negotiation or ratification of gaming compacts, the policy statements in the resolution raise a number of concerns,” she said. “If the Governor or Legislature were to adhere to the conditions contained in this resolution, it could actually do more harm than good, meaning it could result in local communities having less input, not more.

“And because those conditions may put us in conflict with federal laws governing tribal jurisdictions and gaming, ACR 56 could subject the state to potential lawsuits asserting a failure to engage in good faith negotiations. And the courts are likely to side with tribes due to the strength of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.”

This act, which became a federal law in 1988, establishes the jurisdictional framework that governs Indian gaming.

After the meeting, Huffman said, “I was given no advance indication that there was a problem with the resolution, but I couldn’t get a motion or even a courtesy motion. Yet, it was a non-binding resolution. The value of it was that it was a statement of legislative intent.”

He claims that heavy lobbying influenced the situation.

“A lot of very, very powerful interests groups have a lot of influence on the committee. Opponents were working directly with the committee, so the deck was stacked against me,” he said.

Harman, as well as seven of the other 12 committee members, have received campaign contributions from Station Casinos, FIGR’s partner in trying to establish the casino in Rohnert Park, said Marilee Montgomery, spokesperson for the Stop the Casino 101 Coalition. Four of them were at the Aug. 25 meeting.

Huffman said that he intends to talk with Wright about the resolution.

“If there are legislative or technical problems with it, I will try to work them out, he said.

He also might still try to get a casino bill passed by the Assembly.

“We will look at all of our options,” he said.

Greg Sarris, chairman of the FIGR, was pleased that the resolution was not approved, but upset with some of the statements made by Huffman and Healy during the meeting.

“Huffman’s fabrications and specious arguments might be fooling the public, but he isn’t fooling legislators,” he said. “The legislators know that there is a process in place: State legislators can’t pre-empt the federal government. And if the land goes into federal trust, the governor is mandated to negotiate a compact. You can’t ignore such things, or you will be sued by the federal government.”

Sarris was particularly bothered by a passage in the resolution that calls for intergovernmental agreements with tribes to mitigate impacts from the casino in each contiguous county that is “likely to be substantially impacted by the proposed gaming and related activities, as determined by the board of supervisors of the county and set forth in a measure specifying the nature of anticipated impacts that are no more that 75 miles for the proposed gaming facility, and the estimated costs of mitigation.”

“This was the most offensive thing about the resolution to us and to some other tribes,” he said. “Why should Indian tribes have to mitigate impacts for up to 75 miles when other developers don’t? This is racist and unfair, and could set a precedent for all developers everywhere.”

He also took exception to Healy’s statement that the tribe “refuses to mitigate” the casino’s impacts.

“We have a legal and binding agreement with Rohnert Park and Sonoma County, and even have volunteered to mitigate impacts that do not fall within the jurisdiction of Rohnert Park and Sonoma County,” Sarris said.

(Contact Dan Johnson at [email protected])

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