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Chukchansi Tribe Considers MOU, Gaming Commissioners Resign

MADERA COUNTY – The Madera County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday, Sept. 15, to approve a draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the County and the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians.

Agreement on, and adoption of an MOU is one of the steps required to get the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino reopened.

On Aug. 26, Chief Operating Officer Christian Goode said he anticipated reopening within a month, and employees have been hired. However, they have since been furloughed as disputes arise between the Tribal Council and the Tribal Gaming Commission.

On Sept. 14, Gaming Commission Chairman Norman DesRosiers submitted his resignation, stating, “I can no longer serve a governing body that will not respect the independence of its Tribal Regulatory Agency and who knowingly and willingly will not comply with its own Tribal Gaming Ordinance.”

Commissioner Harlan Goodson also resigned from the Gaming Commission on Sept. 17, without stating his reasons.

At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, there was some concern about coming to an agreement with the duly elected Tribal Council, and how the Supervisors would know just who that is.

“We just need something from the tribe certifying that this is the duly elected body, and that they have ratified this MOU,” said Madera County Chief Administrative Officer Eric Fleming. “Once we have that, and the Board approves it, then it can become effective.”

Dora Jones, a member of the 2010 Tribal Council which was recognized as the legitimate council in February 2014 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Internal Board of Indian Appeals (IBIA) and the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), says there are 32 people running for office in an election scheduled for Oct. 3, and that the Tribe is coming together.

Jones is confident that the elections will be successful and bring resolution to the question of who is in charge. She told the Board that rather than having an election committee appointed by the Tribal Council, the voting and the results are being overseen by the Indian Dispute Resolution Services out of Sacramento.

“This election is so important,” said Jones. “We will have all hands off regarding Tribal Council, and no one can say you picked your favorite cousin or niece or nephew to be on that committee. There is an outside agency handling it and I have confidence that we’re going to move forward.”

However, Monica Davis, who introduced herself to the Board as “acting chairman at the Picayune tribal government,” told the Board, “My tribal council believes that the special election is unconstitutional according to tribal law. There has to be an election committee because they have to determine who the membership is, and who is an eligible voter. There’s no such thing in place for this particular election, so how do you know if that’s an eligible voter?”

In the meantime, the Tribe will be considering the draft MOU presented by the Board of Supervisors, and both Jones and Davis say their council will carefully go over the proposed document, and open a dialog with the Board.

This is the third MOU between the County and the Tribe. Here is some history –

In August, 2001, the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians entered into an MOU with Madera County to build a casino on land owned by the Tribe near Coarsegold.

On March 24, 2003, the Tribe applied to the US Department of Interior (DOI) to have the casino property taken into trust, and in September of that year, notice of the Final Agency Determination to do so by the DOI was posted in the Federal Register.

A month later, Madera County filed an objection to that action based on a pending dispute over what they said was non-payment of property taxes by the Tribe, dating back to January 2001. The Tribe asserted that the land was not subject to such taxes, however the County disagreed, since the land had not yet been taken into trust – an action that would exempt the land from property taxes. After years of negotiations, Madera County and the Chukchansi Tribe entered into a new MOU in February 2007.

The 2007 agreement required certain payments be made to the County for the additional services required due to the impact of the casino.

According to the new 2015 draft MOU presented to the Tribe last Tuesday for their consideration, several payments must be brought up to date before the facility can reopen.

The Tribe has failed to make required payments to the County of $924,428.08, pursuant to the 2007 agreement, since November 2014. The casino was shut down by order of the U.S. District Court in October 2014.

The MOU also states that they have failed to make their agreed-to payments of $1 million annually for the past three years.

The $1 million payments were agreed to in 2007 as part of a settlement for the multi-million dollar tax liability the Tribe owed as of 2003, according to the County. The money is distributed each year in the form of “grants” paid out to non-profit organizations in Madera County.

These payments must be made upon the re-opening date of the casino, according to the MOU. However, District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler says a schedule will be set up to allow the Tribe to make these payments monthly until the total amount has been satisfied.

The draft MOU states that the Tribe will be primarily responsible for maintaining order and safety on tribal lands, but that the Madera County Sheriff’s Office will provide one deputy to be available in the vicinity of the casino on a full-time basis – seven days a week, 24 hours a day. This level of staffing requires five deputies to cover the shifts needed for this full time service, and the Tribe will be billed monthly for those actual costs, plus an additional 12 percent administrative fee.

Another stipulation in the draft MOU addresses fire protection for the 9-story facility that includes 400 rooms, and “presents unique impacts and challenges for the County in the manner of providing fire protection and medical aid.”

The County does not have a fire apparatus or the staffing required to address the challenges of a high-rise structure fire, and the MOU requires the Tribe to contribute a one-time payment of $1,100,000 toward the purchase of an aerial firefighting apparatus to be housed at Madera County Fire Department’s Station 8, located on Road 417.

It also requires the Tribe to reimburse the County to staff Station 8 with two firefighters on the fire engine and three firefighters on the aerial apparatus, 24/7. The Tribe would be responsible for the actual costs to provide these staffing levels, plus a 12 percent administrative fee.

The MOU also requires the Tribe to make annual contributions to the County, including $1,000,000 for transportation and road maintenance, $1,000,000 to be used at the discretion of the County, $250,000 to the Department of Community and Economic Development, $25,000 for alcohol and gambling education and treatment, and $75,000 to Cal Fire to supplement the operation of Station 8.

Another point in the MOU is to have the Tribe collect any Transient Occupancy Tax and Tourism Business Improvement District assessments, and “waive sovereign immunity and any exemption under said TOT Ordinance in favor of the County with respect to the collection, reporting, and remitting of the applicable tax.” Both Jones and Davis objected to this inclusion in the agreement, and told the Board it was likely illegal. Both sides said they would have all points of the MOU gone over by their attorneys.

Both Monica Davis and Dora Jones encouraged the Board to sit down with all parties involved to go over every point in the proposed MOU, to make sure there is nothing that will be a problem down the road, and to ensure that everyone has a voice.

“We’re moving forward and we’re hoping that you guys are with us,” Jones told the Board. “If we want to open that casino up in mere days, we need you on board.”

Supervisor Wheeler is anxious to resolve all the issues and come to a resolution as quickly as possible, as the casino is in his district, and its closure has had a huge impact on the residents and the economy of the mountain area.

“This has been devastating to Madera County and also to the tribal citizens,” said Wheeler. “We need to push this thing fast and get it done.”

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