WatchSonoma Watch

County at disadvantage in Rohnert Park casino talks



County officials hold most of the cards when negotiating conditions for new developments. But they now have a weak hand in

Site of the proposed casino at Labath and Wilfred avenues outside Rohnert Park. (PD FILE, 2012)

confronting a project they roundly oppose, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria’s plan to open a casino outside Rohnert Park.

The public can bring concerns over the proposed Indian casino in Rohnert Park to a hearing set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors’ chambers.

It would be one of the county’s largest-ever developments, yet it is is planned for land the federal government deems sovereign Indian territory — free of zoning and other local regulations, and property and most sales taxes.

One of the few things in local officials’ favor is the fact that they will be at the bargaining table at all.

“The county usually has in negotiations some sort of leverage. In this case, the leverage is, the tribe has agreed to negotiate with us,” said Supervisor David Rabbit, whose 2nd District includes the Wilfred Avenue casino site just south of Home Depot.

The high-stakes discussions would follow the expected U.S. Department of the Interior approval of a state-tribal agreement allowing the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria to start the project. The department has until July 6 to make a decision or the agreement takes effect.

The county-tribe talks will set the terms for how much money the county is to get over the next 20 years from the Graton Rancheria to address a range of local impacts. Other measures, such as design and well-monitoring programs, also may be on the table.

County administrators and lawyers will handle the negotiations, joined by an attorney they have hired for the job, Guy Miller, of the Seattle-based Perkins Coie law firm.

A hearing is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors’ chambers for the public to speak about concerns they want the county to focus on in the talks.

The tribe’s Oakland-based attorney, John Maier, and its chairman, Greg Sarris, a Sonoma State University English professor, declined to comment.

Supervisors say areas to be addressed include:

Environmental concerns such as the strain on groundwater supplies and an estimated 14,724 total vehicle trips a day.

The casino’s impact on police and fire services.

Social concerns such as gambling addiction and the cost to the county of providing services to people whose health and/or finances and families may suffer as a result.

“It is very much the goal of the board to offset all of those impacts . . . and make sure they are being fully mitigated,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose 3rd District borders the casino site’s east side.

They also want to get as many concessions as possible.

“We are going to try and capture as much as we can, obviously working constructively with the tribe,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose 5th District also abuts the site.

Estimating impacts

But negotiators face the problem that some of the impacts, especially in the case of groundwater supplies and the social service system, can only be estimated.

“There is really no guarantee that the amount will be sufficient to address all of these impacts,” Carrillo said. “The challenge will be to really quantify, because no one can predict what can really occur.”

To account for that, Zane said, she would like the option to revisit some mitigation measures when more data is available.

“I’m hoping (the tribe) will allow for some flexibility there,” she said.

But the imbalance between ability and desire was evident in remarks Rabbitt made last week at a meeting with constituents fearful of the impact from a 534,000-square-foot casino resort on private wells.

The tribe plans to rely on two wells of its own and wouldn’t be connected to the county water agency’s water delivery system or to the regional sewer treatment plant.

“The whole thing is we have very little leverage,” Rabbitt told the group.

A few minutes later, he said: “We’re going to make darn well sure every impact is mitigated and funded and paid for so we’re not out of pocket.”

The talks are to occur because of a deal the county and tribe reached in 2004 to negotiate those financial terms. If they cannot agree, the deal says, they must go to arbitration — in which case the tribe has agreed to waive sovereignty and accept the decision of a neutral third party.

Officials call that a key factor that will allow them to push firmly for what they consider fair.

“We are in a unique position to go to arbitration if in fact we don’t reach a conclusion,” Zane said.

Limited bargaining power

But at the same time, county officials acknowledge they have far less bargaining power than they would like. “That’s the best we’ve got, and it’s not very good,” Rabbitt said at his Rohnert Park meeting.

At the same meeting, County Counsel Bruce Goldstein, in a comment that highlighted the county’s continuing frustration at its relative lack of power, said: “I wish litigation was a strongly viable alternative, but tribes as sovereign governments and the federal government are very hard to sue.”

The 2004 deal came just four years after California voters OK’d the right of tribes to open Nevada-style gambling casinos on Indian land and at a time when the relationships between local governments and sovereign tribes were still being worked out.

The agreement was slammed by casino critics because it effectively ended official efforts to block the casino, which had included resolutions opposing it and challenges to the environmental reports about the project.

Supervisors said they had no option but to reach an accord because ultimately they would not be able to stop the project and getting something was better than nothing.

The deal puts the county today in a position it did not enjoy, for example, in its earlier attempts to negotiate with the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians over the impacts of its River Rock Casino near Geyserville.

“I think there’s a pathway for a reasonable government-to-government relationship on a not exactly equal, but a more balanced playing field,” said former County Counsel Steven Woodside, who shepherded the 2004 agreement.

Woodside described those negotiations as “sometimes battles and sometimes simply sitting down and negotiating.” And they offer a window into how the tribe might approach the upcoming talks when, as before, it will be represented by Maier and Sarris.

‘A strong team’

“I can never tell for sure who’s really calling the shots, but I would say this: Both of them are strong and knowledgeable,” Woodside said. “They’ve got a strong team.”

Of Maier, Woodside said: “He’s not one of these hired guns out there who basically take pretty strident positions. He’s very knowledgeable, very firm, and he really approached this with a long view.”

The tribal leadership includes a former banker, a school administrator and a high-tech manager, and Woodside said they are attuned to factors that make for good government relations.

“They dealt with other government entities . . . and they understand the benefit of having a good relationship going forward,” Woodside said.

“With the state of the law, and the way things were moving in those years, the tribe didn’t have to do what it did,” Woodside said. “But it chose to do so, in part because it wanted to develop a long-term relationship with county government.”

Goldstein noted that the agreement now under review at the Department of the Interior outlines a formula under which the tribe already is committed to making annual payments of millions of dollars to the county for a variety of casinos impacts.

Negotiating for significant additional payments, he suggested, may be a tougher task this time around.

“My anticipation,” he said, “is that the tribe’s feeling will be that they gave at the office.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

18 Responses to “County at disadvantage in Rohnert Park casino talks”

  1. Chuck G says:

    Developers=Greed $$, Indians=Developers and Greed.

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  2. Larry says:

    When I was a kid growing up in Sonoma County, this tribes reservation was located in Sebastopol on Occidental Road west of Mill Station Road. I guess the old reservation location was not convenient enough for the new and expanded tribe who needed freeway access to suck up the millions and millions of bay area dollars to enhance their life style. I suppose that an Indian Pony probably walked on the Rohnert Park property sometime in the last 500 years so it is now Sacret Ground. If you have enough money, you can buy as many politicians as you need to get your way.

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  3. Skippy says:

    “This country committed genocide on Native Americans. Just like Nazi Germany. Then stole their land and intentionally tried to eliminate their culture through “assimilation.””

    And the guilt and reparations will never end, dooming the survivors to endless generations of Great White Father in Washington-style Big Govt dependency.
    Those who support anything less than assimilation(something all nationalities have done in America, except illegals)do so in order to keep Indians as quaint reminders of the evil white men do.
    The past is past; the guilty are dead, but the opportunity to use the Indians as a weapon against America never will go away.
    Oh, my red brothers. When will you finally throw off the yoke of resentment?

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  4. Chuck G says:

    Now isn’t this just great. Our local politicians are going to just sit back and let this happen. Not to worry though, they will receive some of that Casino $$ to keep things in order(wink of the eye)

    The future outcome you decide:

    A)more drunk drivers on the road
    B)more people in debt because they just spent their whole paycheck gambling
    C)Environmental disaster, including pollution and crime
    D)All of the above and there’s actually more, I just didn’t include it all.

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  5. Chuck G says:

    Money $$ equals an election win, an election win equals support for more money $$ and so on, which in turn equals stale politics.

    Now that you’re affected by these decisions do you feel a bit cheated? I sure do.

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  6. Graeme Wellington says:

    Another opportunity to vent. I hope the futile gesture makes you feel better about it. I’m going to be shaking Greg Sarris’ hand one opening day and thanking him for putting up with so much baloney. Can we just fix the roads and get the schools up to par instead of wasting time on plastic bag bans and having pointless meetings to assuage the squeaky wheels long ago rusted to a halt

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  7. bear says:

    This country committed genocide on Native Americans. Just like Nazi Germany. Then stole their land and intentionally tried to eliminate their culture through “assimilation.”

    Rather than pay cash in compensation, this country has chosen the “casino” ploy. Compensate NAs as long as it doesn’t cost ME anything.

    Shameful. Oh, but is it Christian?

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  8. Reality Check says:

    A myth needs to be punctured. In the 1950s, the federal government terminated recognition of many small tribes when it became obvious that most members no longer lived as members of the tribe. That is, they were assimilating, which once upon a time would have been considered overdue progress.

    The government wanted an end to the expense of administering reservations in which very few Indians lived. Better to distribute the assets among remaining members.

    Then came casino gambling. In the glory days, the Foxwood casino generated a monthly dividend to each adult Mashantucket Pequot of $10,000. The amount of Pequot blood required for tribal membership? 1/16th. Oh, Foxwood today is mired in debt. Interest in membership has, is anyone surprised, declined.

    Today each member of the Puyallup tribe in Washington receives $2,000, and interest in membership is rising.

    Let’s not pretend this is about returning to traditional ways; it’s about the money. That’s it.

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  9. Sarkyfish says:

    The Lytton Band of Pomo Indians were recognized in the late 1980s as lineal descendants of the two families who lived at the Lytton Rancheria in Healdsburg, California from 1937 to about 1960. 1980s! Two families! Invent a tribe and they will come.

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  10. Tim says:

    It’s about time someone tells the county and politicians to pound sand and that the developer will do what they want. I suspect though when all said and done, the bloodsuckers will suck a few million from the developer to further their destruction of America.

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  11. Rome is Burning says:

    Follow the money. The electeds were paid handsomely by the Indian lobbyists. Until we voters decide to inform ourselves as to who is really “running the show”, we will always be at a disadvantage. This casino sailed through Sacto in just a few short weeks. Money is power, and the Indians figured that out long ago.

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  12. TrueBlue says:

    Isn’t the point of having a federal government to protect its citizens? So why doesn’t our federal government do its job? Really US Government?… the largest development in our county and we are basically powerless? Thanks for nothing!

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  13. Missy says:

    While I have a lot of sympathy for NA’s and understand why they want casinos to bring in money I wish there could be another way. I also want to protect the land from being overdeveloped and from tons of cars and gamblers.

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  14. rv says:

    A casino just north of my moble home park with a nice view from my back yard Love it

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  15. Follower says:

    Sorry bear but Socialism doesn’t include “choice”. In fact freedom of choice is Socialism kryptonite because eventually people realize that the only thing “fair and equal” about Socialism is the sales pitch.

    Nobody will be patronizing the Casino by force.

    It’s interesting that you and people of your mindset fully understand that there are people who just can’t help themselves, people who will make bad personal decisions time & time again yet your solution is to make sure they have plenty of resources to continue doing so.

    Resources that I CREATED where none previously existed through hard work, self discipline, personal sacrifice and yes… from time to time a little luck.

    Like being born in America. (Luck)

    Unfortunately thanks to American Liberal, Socialists my children & grandchildren may not be so “lucky”.

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  16. Hugh Baby's Rose Parade Elephant says:

    Looks like the Federated Indians of Town and Country – McDonald Avenue District are getting their casino.

    To celebrate, they should erect one of the old cigarette billboards from the late 70′s right in front of the casino. Retro cool and all.

    Don’t care either way. Far from Wild Oats in Eden, the now cash strapped Automobile Ghetto knows as Sonoma County needs every bit of revenue it can get its hands on. If it helps Native Americans that grew up west of Old Redwood Hwy, what the heck.

    “Hey kid, you dropped something… your footsteps.”

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  17. bear says:

    Where to begin?

    Genocide and ethnic cleansing of Native
    Americans has been a fact in California for over 150 years. The land you stand on is not yours – it was stolen.

    Rather than compensate NA’s with dollars, our government chose the casino route. Take money from the most desperate, and “redistribute” it to the NA’s. Sounds like socialism to me – and a huge evasion of responsibility.

    Some sort of formal agreement is called for, but only after rational discussion of the details. For example, maybe the sewer pond serving the Windsor project could be relocated to an edge near ag. land.

    If you buy land at the urban edge, there is an inherent risk that the open fields next to you may be developed. By NA’s or by for-profit developers. Other than the pond, the density of the proposed NA development seems the fair and preferable choice.

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  18. Reality Check says:

    The article headline was someone’s idea of humor, right? The county is entirely dependent on the goodwill of the tribe, period. If the tribe decides to rebate some gambling proceeds to the county, lucky us I guess. But no matter how much lipstick we put on the pig, its identity can’t be denied.

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