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Inland Empire

Davis Ready to Approve Casino in S.B. County

Fort Mojave tribe's agreements and others must be approved by the Legislature and the governor-elect, whose spokesman says it's unlikely.

October 21, 2003|Gregg Jones | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The Davis administration said Monday it has agreed to allow the Fort Mojave Indian tribe to open a San Bernardino County casino in what could be the first of several such compacts reached between Gov. Gray Davis and California tribes before Republican Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger takes office in the next three weeks.

The agreement -- and any others signed before the transfer of power -- must be approved by the Legislature and Schwarzenegger. And a Schwarzenegger spokesman said the latest agreement and previous ones between the state and Indian tribes won't pass muster with the new governor.

"The governor-elect has made it clear that he's going to renegotiate every compact," said Schwarzenegger spokesman H.D. Palmer. "He's said it's time for a fresh approach, and he's said everything is on the table."

Like three other tribes that recently signed gambling agreements with the Davis administration, the Fort Mojave tribe agreed to pay 5% of the profits from its gambling operations to California's general fund and agreed to reach a written agreement with San Bernardino County to address the environmental impact of the casino. The agreement will allow the tribe to operate 350 slot machines, a fraction of those operated by California's larger Indian casinos.

Schwarzenegger has noted that Connecticut collects a 25% cut of Indian casino profits, and Palmer described that agreement as "the model for the kind of common-sense approach" the new governor will apply to negotiations with California's tribes.

Tribal leaders say Connecticut's 25% arrangement with that state's two tribes would be unfair to California's tribes because not all are large gambling operations. More than 60 California tribes hold gambling agreements, and dozens of other tribes are seeking agreements.

Unlike any other California agreement, the Fort Mojave compact stipulates that any legal disputes arising from casino operations will be adjudicated by tribal courts -- a significant concession on the part of the state, said Robert Rosette, the tribe's attorney.

"It was a true recognition of the tribe's sovereignty," said Rosette.

The Fort Mojave tribe has about 1,100 members, including about 400 who live in Needles, on the Arizona border. The tribe already operates casinos in Nevada and Arizona.

In another departure from California's previous Indian gambling agreements, the Fort Mojave tribe is seeking to develop a casino outside the boundaries of its federally recognized reservation. Tribal representatives said they would like to develop a casino about 3 1/2 miles outside Needles, near Interstate 40, to avoid potential traffic and pollution effects on town residents. The alternative location would require the tribe to build a road to provide adequate access to the interstate, but the tribe is willing to do that as a gesture of goodwill toward Needles residents, Rosette said.

Foes of tribal gambling said the new compact sets a dangerous precedent by allowing an off-reservation casino and giving more power to tribal courts.

In recent years, some of the state's Indian casinos have drawn complaints from disgruntled citizens who sued over disputes -- including trip-and-fall injuries, worker injury claims and disputes with outside vendors -- only to have the tribes claim sovereign immunity. Such cases would have little chance in a tribal court, casino foes contend.

Barbara Lindsay, executive director of United Property Owners, a national anti-gambling group, said tribal courts are not independent judiciaries. "The tribal leaders write the paychecks for the judges and hire and fire them," she said. "If the judge rules against the tribe, their days can be numbered."

The Fort Mojave compact could be followed by other agreements, said Marilyn Delgado, director of the Davis administration's office of the American Indian Coordinator. Delgado said the administration had received calls from several tribes after the recall election who were looking to conclude negotiations before the transfer of power to a Schwarzenegger administration.

Davis initiated negotiations with dozens of California tribes earlier this year in an effort to increase the state's share of casino profits and address the environmental impact of casinos. The administration's efforts have focused primarily on reaching agreements with tribes that don't have casinos. A number of tribes that already have agreements with the state are trying to negotiate an expansion of their operations.

A change in administrations could delay agreements by as much as a year, Davis administration and tribal officials said.

"It takes negotiators several months to learn the process and several months to [conduct] negotiations," Delgado said. "We're trying to wrap up those we have been meeting with."

Nora McDowell, chairwoman of the Fort Mojave tribe, said her tribe would be willing to pay its "fair share" for police and fire protection in reaching an agreement with San Bernardino County.

She added, "At this point we don't have a number" as to what the tribe would be willing to pay the county.

In addition to approval by the Legislature and the governor, the agreement must be approved by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Interior.

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Times staff writer Eric Bailey contributed to this report.

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