By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Relations between Sonoma County officials and the Indian tribe that has started work on a 3,000-slot machine casino next to Rohnert Park appear to have soured as the two sides approach negotiations about how the tribe will alleviate the project’s impacts.
The chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria on Wednesday said county supervisors are “putting out inaccurate and misleading information about our project.”
Greg Sarris, in a statement issued through the tribe’s attorney, also said statements by at “least one supervisor” have “caused the tribe to question whether the county board is serious about negotiating in a respectful manner on a government to government basis.”
The tribe’s attorney, John Maier, declined to identify which supervisor.
The tribe and county officials are expected to begin negotiating within weeks in a process they agreed to in a 2004 contract. Supervisors have scheduled a town hall meeting for Thursday in Rohnert Park to get public comment in advance of those talks.
Sarris on Tuesday in an interview with KGO-TV upped the ante on the negotiations, saying that if they go into arbitration — as provided for in the 2004 contract — the county would lose its chance to get any additional money from the tribe.
Supervisors on Wednesday said they wanted to avoid that eventuality.
“I still strongly believe that we need to (negotiate) in a good faith manner and I think the county as a whole is demonstrating that good faith effort,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo.
“My hope and desire is that we not end up in baseball-style arbitration because at that point, I fear, we would not be able to fully mitigate or obtain the full mitigations,” he said.
Other supervisors offered varying views on the tribe’s stance.
Supervisor David Rabbitt suggested that on the eve of talks between “what are essentially two sovereign nations,” Sarris’s comments were not unexpected. “I think it’s a prelude to negotiations; I don’t think it’s out of the ordinary.”
Supervisor Valerie Brown said the tribe is reacting to public criticism resurgent since March. That is when the casino began to move definitively toward fruition after nine years of court battles, the bankruptcy of the tribe’s Las Vegas backers and lengthy environmental reports.
“I believe that the tribe feels that they have been more willing to deal with local government than any tribe in the state,” said Brown, referring to the 2004 agreement with the county and a $200 million revenue-sharing deal the tribe struck with Rohnert Park in 2003.
“They are being vilified for it,” Brown said. “I don’t know how as a tribe, that can’t have a reverberating effect.”
Sarris issued his statement through Maier after being asked about remarks he made on the television news report in which he appeared to renege on terms of the 2004 county-tribe contract.
They specify that if negotiations are not successful, both sides will accept the decision of a neutral arbitrator. In the agreement, which Sarris has touted as an example of the tribe’s eagerness to work constructively with the larger community, the tribe waived its sovereign immunity in order to accept the arbitration.
Prior to arbitration, the county and tribe have 90 days to negotiate how the tribe would address, financially and otherwise, casino impacts on areas ranging from traffic to crime.
But on Tuesday, Sarris said: “If it goes to baseball arbitration, this is what I have to say: The second pot of money, the gift money that I have the option of giving the county, they will not get. It will go back to the state,” to be disbursed to other tribes.
In Wednesday’s statement, Sarris also said that supervisors “continue to fight the Tribe every step of the way.”
“My statement simply puts the county on notice” that the tribe “recognizes that it has the option of providing the minimal amount of project mitigation,” he said.
The tribe, he said, would honor an arbitrator’s decision regarding mitigating casino impacts. But if talks reached the point of arbitration, the tribe would not give the county any additional money that came available from casino revenues to minimize casino impacts.
That “gift money…is expected to run in the tens of millions of dollars,” he said, and it would instead go to the state.
Brown, speaking from Brazil where she is attending climate control discussions as part of a U.S. delegation, said, “I would hope that does not happen.”
Both she and Rabbitt said tensions are worsened by the politics of the situation in which as supervisors gather public input ahead of the negotiations, residents often respond with anger about the project and in some cases the belief that the county can do more to halt, delay or shape it.
“The problem is a lot of of other stuff is getting in the way,” Brown said, “People who believe we have a lot more authority than we do, people who believe we can stop the casino.”
Rabbitt said: “I can only imagine on the tribe’s side: They’ve started construction, there’s a certain amount of criticism in the community, there’s a lot of pressures moving forward. Just like there is, believe me, on the county’s side.”
The tribe broke ground on the casino resort just south of Home Depot on Monday. Las Vegas-based Station Casinos, which is bankrolling the $750 million project and will manage it for seven years, has said it hopes to open for business by late next year.
A gambling compact between Gov. Jerry Brown and the tribe allowing it to start work on and run the Las Vegas-style casino is under review at the federal Interior Department, which is expected to approve it.
Critics have questioned whether the tribe has the right to start work prior to either the compact’s approval or the conclusion of a mitigation agreement with the county. County attorneys have said they believe the tribe can move ahead.