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Dry Creek Rancheria members vote on tribe officers

Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 8:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 8:25 p.m.

Dry Creek Rancheria elections, postponed more than three months because of questions over the legitimacy of two candidates, are set for Saturday.

At stake is the leadership of the Pomo tribe that runs River Rock, Sonoma County's first Indian casino, and whether longtime chairman Harvey Hopkins will be re-elected to a fifth two-year term.

The election comes at a critical juncture for the approximate 1,100-member Geyserville tribe, which will see its 10-year county monopoly on Las Vegas-style gambling end when another Indian casino next to Rohnert Park opens later this year.

The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria's casino will be bigger and located closer to urban areas. River Rock is bracing for a loss of customers and some of its workforce to the new gambling venue.

Hopkins on Thursday dismissed criticism that he and the current board have not done enough to prepare for the competition.

He said that under his leadership, the tribe has taken steps to reduce debt and create new revenue in the form of a wine-bottling venture and a new tobacco shop at the approximate 1200-slot casino.

The tribe shelved plans for a 267-room casino hotel expansion in 2008 after U.S. financial markets collapsed.

In 2011, River Rock refinanced $200 million in bond debt at a lower interest rate and has whittled away $24 million of the principal, Hopkins said.

“Those people talking against the chairman don't understand how hard I worked to get it done,” he said of refinancing the debt he inherited as chairman.

Saturday's election follows on the heels of simmering disputes over tribal membership and the decision by the Dry Creek Board of Directors to boot two candidates out of the tribe, ending their bid for election.

Hopkins “has gotten rid of those who didn't support him,” said Laila Elgin DeRouen, one of the candidates for the board who was disenrolled after she declared her candidacy as secretary-treasurer on the five-member tribal board.

Also disenrolled from the tribe was Carmen Cordova Soltanizadeh, who was a candidate for the tribal gaming commission, which oversees the tribe's casino operations.

Both claim they were selectively disenrolled because they were challenging members of the salaried board and commission who are up for re-election.

The women are cousins and also daughters of two former tribal leaders who were kicked out of the tribe in a previous round of disenrollments.

Hopkins denied that it was done to eliminate rivals.

“It has nothing to do with politics,” he asserted, explaining that anyone who runs for office is subject to having their tribal “citizenship” verified.

When election time comes, he said every candidate's status is reviewed to ensure they are legitimate.

In essence, members must be descended from someone who was living on the Rancheria when it was established in 1915 and cannot have been a member of another tribe.

But both women complain that a new standard of “broken lineage” was applied to them because their parents were tossed out of the tribe.

Marina Nojima, who is running for tribal chairperson against Hopkins, reportedly voted against the disenrollments.

She declined to be interviewed Thursday, but previously said it feels like the tribe is being broken apart. Nojima said that she hopes the tribe clears up ambiguity over membership in its “Articles of Association” so that its not just board or committee members saying “It's this way.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com

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