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Argus-Courier Editorial

Strategy needed to stop casino

Published: Monday, July 29, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 25, 2013 at 9:57 a.m.

When crafting a strategy to protect your community from an outside threat, it’s important to know all the facts, be very well-organized and conjoin with state and national political leaders to prepare for the battle ahead. As Petaluma’s elected officials finally begin showing signs of developing a more aggressive strategy to prevent a massive Las Vegas-style gambling casino from being built on the city’s doorstep, it’s clear that much more needs to be done to position the city for success.

Despite the fact that South County Supervisor David Rabbitt has repeatedly and vociferously conveyed his constituents’ serious concerns about the casino threat to federal and state representatives, only now are Petaluma’s leaders finally getting around to formally requesting assistance from those same officials. Mayor David Glass and the City Council should be working more closely with Rabbitt to ensure that this community’s concerns are clearly, strongly and jointly conveyed to those with the power to stop a casino.

Organizationally, city leaders have spent precious little time developing a comprehensive strategy to prevent the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomos from turning the 277 acres of land it owns alongside Highway 101 at Kastania Road into a gargantuan casino. This is despite a clear message in 2006 from nearly 80 percent of local voters who said they want their elected officials to do everything in their power to stop a casino.

Hand wringing will not get the job done.

The Dry Creek tribe, led by Chairman Harvey Hopkins, operates the River Rock Casino near Geyserville. Shortly after buying the Petaluma property in 2005, the tribe submitted an application to develop “a class III gaming facility” on the site. Their intent: leapfrog ahead of the future Graton Rancheria casino in Rohnert Park to be closer to the large Bay Area urban population. When the Graton Rancheria casino opens later this year, the number of visitors to the River Rock casino will dwindle, and profits will plunge. Given that the casino located closest to the Bay Area population is likely to earn the biggest revenues and profits, it’s logical for the Dry Creek Band to want to pursue its original plan to build a second casino in Petaluma.

To counter this threat, the City of Petaluma, working with Rabbitt, must get to work now. An effective strategy should eliminate any further discussions with Hopkins, whose disingenuous banter about building an alternate, non-casino development requiring city utilities is a smokescreen to divert city officials’ attention away from his tribe’s latest application with the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to take the land into trust. Once the property is taken into federal trust, local control over what may be built on the site disappears and land use decision-making becomes the sole province of the tribe, which may then proceed to build and operate a casino.

Ironically, rival tribal leader Greg Sarris, whose Graton Rancheria Tribe is about to open the doors to the Bay Area’s largest gaming complex in Rohnert Park in two months, is suddenly advising the city to more aggressively oppose the Dry Creek tribe’s application. Sarris is obviously concerned that a Petaluma casino would reduce his own casino’s earning power, and he’s right.

We’ve not always agreed with Sarris, but we have to admit that his proposed strategy makes sense for Petaluma, which would stand to suffer mightily from greatly increased traffic, crime and strained public services should a Las Vegas-style casino open locally.

The city’s first priority should be to encourage the establishment of a legal defense fund to help underwrite this fight. Despite statements to the contrary, Hopkins is using the considerable cash generated from the River Rock casino to pay attorneys and lobbyists who are working the halls of Sacramento and Washington D.C. to ensure the land is taken into trust so a casino may be built.

At this point, the city and county have exactly zero financial resources to put up against Hopkins. That must change. Perhaps Sarris could be persuaded to contribute to a legal fund aimed at stopping a Petaluma casino. It would certainly be in his tribe’s best interests to do so.

A city letter about to be sent to our federal representatives, including Congressman Jared Huffman and Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, requesting their help in opposing the Dry Creek application is a nice first step. But merely telling the Bureau of Indian Affairs -- which operates under an opaque and murky process totally closed to public scrutiny -- to deny the application is not nearly enough.

Legislators should also be encouraged to approve legislation that would require Indian tribes seeking to build casinos to prove that the land they intend to develop was occupied by their ancestors. This would help stop the shameful practice of “reservation shopping” whereby tribes from rural areas seek federal approval to develop casinos in more urban areas. Getting this federal legislation passed should become a priority for our congressional representatives, as should creating some transparency in the federal approval process for taking Indian lands into trust. Why is it that Petaluma’s county supervisor cannot get a straight answer from the federal government on the status of the tribe’s application? That’s totally unacceptable.

Our state legislators can also help. When California voters in 2000 approved Prop 1A, they authorized the governor to negotiate gambling contracts that would allow casinos to be operated by federally recognized Indian tribes “on Indian lands” in California. That meant tribes’ historical lands, not just any properties they decide to acquire. Fixing this loophole should be a priority of Petaluma’s state representatives as well as Governor Jerry Brown.

Finally, encouraging volunteers to work on letter writing campaigns and petition drives will also help get the attention of elected officials. To be successful in stopping this threat, Petaluma will need to be active and united.

The choice is clear: Either fight back or surrender Petaluma to the Las Vegas gambling interests who will do to this community what they have done to many other communities throughout California: ruin them.

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