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Gold Rush Town Is at Odds Over Casino Plan

Proposal for a tribal gambling hall pits neighbor against neighbor. Recall unseats three council members.

June 13, 2004|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

PLYMOUTH, Calif. — Before neighbor turned against neighbor, before the mayor made the front page in jailhouse shackles, before the blustery talk of wells running dry and the town's moral fiber blowing away, this was just another pipsqueak of a place embraced by the golden folds of the Sierra foothills.

Then came a proposal for an Indian casino.

The Ione Band of Miwok Indians figured it was time it tapped into the gambling riches being mined by other California tribes. So a year ago, the band announced plans for a sprawling 2,000-slot casino straddling the doorstep of Plymouth, population 950.

Nothing in town has been quite the same since.

Residents railed against the casino. When the City Council signed an agreement with the tribe, outraged Plymouth citizens launched a recall. Anti-casino signs sprouted along California 49, the winding link through this historic Gold Rush territory.

Nearby towns also protested. Lawsuits followed. Meanwhile, the prime target of the Plymouth recall, Mayor Darlene Scanlon, landed in jail after a domestic dispute with her estranged husband on charges that she claimed were trumped up by casino politics.

The Ione Band had plenty of squabbles of its own. The casino deal spotlighted a decade-long fight over tribal leadership. An outcast faction laid bare its claims that the Ione had been hijacked by impostors, including several officials at the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs' Sacramento office. The FBI and the Department of Interior's inspector general launched investigations.

All this comes in a county of 36,000 that has plenty of experience with Indian gambling.

Amador County is home to Jackson Rancheria Casino & Hotel, a cavernous Native American resort that is the county's biggest employer and its most troublesome crime spot, accounting for more than a quarter of all felony arrests. A third tribal casino is planned near Amador County's western edge.

"This county can't handle it," said Russell Evitt, an 81-year-old former county supervisor who lives near Jackson Rancheria. "The traffic, the accidents, the arrests. It's all just a drain."

Plymouth's fight is hardly unusual as communities throughout California tussle with tribes over casinos. In Sacramento, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and several of the state's biggest casino tribes are negotiating to tap more Indian money for the state's shrunken coffers in exchange for casino concessions. Meanwhile, two competing ballot measures are heading toward a November showdown that could either undermine the tribes' slot-machine monopoly or cement their place as California's gambling kingpins.

The Ione want a piece of the action. With more than 600 members scattered throughout the region, the tribe and its leaders have no reservation to call home. A year ago, they launched their effort to develop a $120-million casino and 250-room hotel on more than 200 acres at Plymouth's edge.

"It's an issue of the tribe being self-reliant," said Matt Franklin, Ione Band chairman. "Our elders are saying, 'Hey, we want to benefit from Indian gaming too.' "

Hoping to sweeten the deal, the tribe and its backers -- a small group of investors with past ties to a couple of Indian casinos in Wisconsin -- proposed paying the town $80 million over 20 years to offset any municipal problems.

That's big money anywhere, but really big money in Plymouth. For years, the town has stumbled along on an annual budget of about $600,000.

Prospects for growth and more tax dollars have been hamstrung by a building moratorium necessitated by an unreliable water source. Like an 1860s outpost, Plymouth survives on well water and an antique earthen ditch dating to the Gold Rush.

Locals groused that the casino, which also would tap the area's groundwater, could drain the town dry. Despite tribal assurances that no such thing would be allowed, "people are concerned," said Butch Cranford, a casino opponent. "If your property doesn't have any water, it doesn't matter what's on it. It's worthless."

Others worried the casino would undermine the community's family-oriented tradition. They mentioned urban-style crime, traffic jams, drunk drivers. "The tribe doesn't live here," said Elida Malick, a recall booster. "They're here to make money -- lots of it. And this little town isn't equipped to handle what could be coming."

Mayor Scanlon and the council majority heard those concerns but saw that nearby communities had fought casinos and lost. Plymouth, they reasoned, couldn't beat the Ione Band.

"We didn't have the money to fight it," said Scanlon, a sixth-generation Plymouth resident. "So why not negotiate?"

Despite a city survey that found seven of 10 residents in opposition, Scanlon and her allies approved a municipal service agreement with the tribe. And Plymouth, though hardly immune to small-town controversies, was torn asunder in a way folks had never seen before.

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