Council meeting brings out casino contention, despite settlement agreement

Friday 7th February 2020

The city of Ridgecrest has settled all litigation issues with the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe regarding the tribe's planned casino, but this did not stop several members of the public and Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens from making angry comments about the casino project at the council meeting Wednesday.

Pilchen: agreement with the tribe was approved three to two

The ongoing hot-button topic was first broached by Assistant Attorney Lloyd Pilchen, who reported that the settlement agreement was approved in closed session by a vote of 3-to-2. The three council members voting yes were Mayor Peggy Breeden, Vice Mayor Michael Mower and Council member Scott Hayman.

Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens and Council member Kyle Blades voted no. Blades responded to the DI's request for a comment, which was provided by email (see sidebar).

Pilchen said there is no requirement to report council's closed session votes, but in this case the majority of the council approved his action in doing so.

Pilchen went over highlights of the settlement agreement. According to the agreement, he said, payments from the tribe to the city will now increase upon year three of the project even if project construction has not yet started its second phase at that time.

"The payments increase $12.5 million to the city," Pilchen said.

Pilchen noted that the land sale will proceed at the original price of $5.5 million to the developer and that "the city in good faith will support the tribe with the department of the interior with respect to the taking of the land into trust."

Pilchen also clarified several issues in regard to the Brown Act, which covers government meetings.

According to Pilchen, the Brown Act does allow the council to discuss various litigation matters and settlement in closed session. He added that actions are not reported publicly until both sides have reached an agreement.

In this case, he said, the city chose to announce the settlement agreement in a press release without waiting for anyone to ask, presumably due to the intense public interest in the topic.

Porter: "I might as well go into the restroom and talk to the urinal and go home."

Ron Porter spoke up during public comment, arguing that the closed session was not properly noticed and giving his opinion that the actions of the council in approving the settlement agreement were unfair to the public, comparing the council to dictators.

"They had a vote in secret which wasn't allowed," Porter said. "They sold property basically without bringing it to the public's attention. You just told the public, 'you don't count. Your opinion doesn't count. We're the dictators up here. Sit back and shut up.'"

"It's about time we started acting like the public counts," Porter said. "We just went through an impeachment because they didn't want to follow the law. This city regularly destroys the Brown Act."

Apparently speaking about his perceived futility as a public commentator and researcher, Porter later said, "most of the time when I come down here I might as well go into the restroom and talk to the urinal and go home."

"Apparently we are having a casino, whether we like it or not and I am a little disappointed in what I heard tonight. But there may be still some avenues here," he said.

Matthews went on to ask about the sovereign rights of the city of Ridgecrest and whether the tribe had surrendered any of its sovereign rights in the MSA.

Cabana: "They hear you guys are having secret meetings and they're like 'What is this? A mafia?'"

Amelia Cabana spoke up, expressing her opinion about city infrastructure being inadequate to support the casino project and rebuilding on the base. She also offered her opinion that the city does not reach out to young people, who she said are scared to attend the meetings.

"They are outsiders and they don't feel welcome in this town," Cabana said. "They hear you guys are having secret meetings and they're like 'What is this? A mafia?'"

She added, "we have no idea what's going on and when we do we are told its secret. So they are, like, afraid."

Cabana, who described herself as a young person who works on the base, said if people wanted to work for the military and near a casino they would move to Nevada because they have much better taxes.

After complaining about a lack of city outreach to younger people, she added, "A casino is not the answer to getting highly educated people or highly skilled people to stay here especially on the base. Statistics show that it is for low-income poor people. We don't even have the infrastructure to support that, the rebuilding of the base and all of the negative social consequences that it's going to bring."

Cabana also asked about official impact analysis reports.

Neel: "A lot of scheming behind closed doors"

Longtime passionate casino opponent Mike Neel also spoke up.

Neel thanked Cabana for her comments, then added, "there is really nothing up here that anybody needs to be afraid of. We had a lot of scheming behind closed doors going on, well, that's nothing really to be afraid of."

"There's probably 45 minutes worth of slam that I could talk about in this whole decision," Neel said.

"This settlement quote unquote to sell the land is completely like 'what is this?' to everybody in town. This council voted in 2018 to terminate the land sale agreement and now from somewhere out in the air they pull a sales agreement down and approve it under the cover of their attorney, which has never, ever been anything more than a cover for this council's actions."

Neel continued emphatically, eventually calling for the recall of two council members. He later volunteered his assistance to anyone organizing a recall effort.

"You can't sell our public land without a public discussion and a public vote," he said emphasizing each word separately. Three of you are responsible for that. I'm looking at you in eye right now and telling you. You hold responsibility for an illegal action to sell public's land."

Neel named Breeden, Mower and Hayman and said, "this town is going to hold you responsible for this and you are going to catch flack over it for a long time. I hope the proper response gets taken up in this town to recall two of you from your positions for this illegal action."

Neel called the agreement "a stab right in our back, a betrayal of our trust," complete with a gesture of stabbing his own back.

He went on to acknowledge and apologize for his angry demeanor.

"I am sorry to get a little more than calm here," Neel said.

Stephens: 'George [Gholson] will be happy because this is more clientele for the casino'

In a later surprise move, Stephens brought up the casino project in a negative comment during an unrelated agenda item, a protest hearing for the sale of city land for a low-income housing development called Mojave View Apartments.

Stephens, apparently addressing Cabana said, "So, unfortunately, Amelia this is another project that goes against probably what most of the people on base are looking for, but George [gesturing at former Timbisha Shoshone tribal chair George Gholson, seated at the back of the room] will be happy because this is more clientele for the casino. Um, so we are moving in the opposite direction that we should be with a project like this, unfortunately."

Scott Miller also spoke up during public comment, thanking the council for fulfilling its contract with the tribe. Miller asked the council to look into restarting the city/tribal committee meetings regarding the project.

He then added, apparently referring to Stephens, "in my opinion, the chairperson of that committee should not be the same person who is the administrator of the No casino page on Facebook."

The land sale for Mojave View Apartments was approved four to one after the protest hearing. Stephens was the dissenting vote. For more on this story, see Saturday's edition of the Daily Independent.

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