The biggest takeaway from the April 4 meeting among City Manager Ron Strand, Timbisha Shoshone Tribal Chairman George Gholson, the US Department of the Interior and others is that the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process would be required before a casino could be built in Ridgecrest even if local lands are taken into mandatory trust for the project.

NEPA required by National Indian Gaming Commission

According to an email from Strand, staff from the Office of Indian Gaming said that although a mandatory land acquisition would not require the NEPA process, the NEPA process would still be required to establish an Indian Gaming Management Contract under the jurisdiction of the National Indian Gaming Commission.

The general presumption prior to this was that if the land is acquired via a mandatory trust acquisition process that the NEPA process would not be required. Local casino opponents have complained that the Tribal Environmental Impact Report (TEIR) environmental process is not rigorous enough to protect the city's interests and have criticized the presumed lack of NEPA process. The draft TEIR report was issued in December 2017.

Strand said that Associate Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior James Cason asked questions regarding a mandatory trust land acquisition as opposed to an off-reservation discretionary trust acquisition. Strand said he indicated there was a strong argument that the proposed Ridgecrest lands qualified for a mandatory acquisition based upon the Homeland Act.

Cason reportedly expressed concern that a mandatory trust acquisition would be exempt from NEPA review and that he was aware of the concerns from some members of the Ridgecrest community regarding the casino and had letters from locals to that effect. According to Strand, staff from the Office of Indian Gaming informed Cason that the NEPA process would be required anyway.

No timeframe for decision

Strand said he informed Cason that a majority of the Ridgecrest City Council support the casino and the land trust acquisition. He said the meeting ended with Cason directing his staff to continue with the land trust acquisition application but that no decision was made whether the land trust qualified for a mandatory acquisition or not and no timeframe was given when such a decision would be made.

During the meeting, Gholson also briefly talked about the history of his tribe, the Homeland Act, their past and current efforts to take land into trust and the reasons why they want to establish a casino.

In addition to Gholson, Strand and Cason, the meeting was attended by John Tahsuda, Acting Secretary/Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs; Matt Kelly, Attorney Office of Solicitor General; Maria Wiseman, Bureau of Indian Affairs – Office of Indian Gaming; and Phillip Bristol, Bureau of Indian Affairs – Office of Indian Gaming. Also in attendance were Mark Levitan and Joe Findaro, Counsels for the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe.

Meanwhile back in Ridgecrest

Strand was sent to Washington, D.C. to represent the city only after a long, rowdy and contentious city council meeting March 21. Council ultimately voted three to two to send Strand to D.C., but did not approve casino opponent CouncilwomanLindsey Stephens' request that she accompany Strand. Mayor Peggy Breeden, Mayor Pro Tem Michael Mower and Vice Mayor Eddie Thomas voted to send Strand to D.C. Stephens and Councilman Wallace Martin voted against the motion. Breeden, Mower and Thomas voted against Stephens making the trip and Stephens and Martin voted that she go.

Stephens and others complained at the April 4 council meeting that Strand's trip was scheduled so quickly that Stephens did not have time to help Strand craft talking points for the meeting.

“I just wanted to say that I was very disappointed that the meeting to DC was scheduled prior to the agenda item that I had requested publicly at the last meeting per policy,” Stephens said during her council comment period April 4. Stephens was referring to her request that a discussion of talking points for Strand be placed on an upcoming agenda. This obviously did not happen because the trip to DC occurred before the next council meeting could take place.

“This once again shows that the tribe's needs are being put ahead of the city's,” Stephens said. She added that a discussion of CALPERS retirement refinancing had to be taken off the March 21 agenda because Strand was not present at the council meeting.

“I was disappointed we were not able to give input on what was said at the [DC] meeting,” Stephens said. She added that she and many others would have liked the meeting to be recorded.

Members of the public also spoke up at the April 4 council meeting.

Ron Porter said Strand should not have been sent without the public having a chance to weigh in on talking points. Linda Fuller questioned Strand's purpose in going to Washington.

Mike Neel spoke up, angrily mocking anyone who had suggested that Stephens was an inappropriate choice to represent the city in Washington DC.

Marilyn Neel also spoke up, saying she agreed with her husband's “ire” over the last meeting.

“The shame that has been put upon this community is despicable. The division that has been caused in this community over this casino issue is despicable. Never in my almost 40 years of living here, I have ever seen anything that has so ripped apart the fabric of the character of this community,” she said.

Marilyn Neel criticized developer Nigel White for what she called his attempts to “shame this community” and “rip off the Timbisha Shoshone.”

Mike Neel has also announced he is filing an injunction in an attempt to prevent council and city staff from having further discussions with the tribe and/or casino developers regarding the casino project municipal services agreement and land sale.

The Ridgecrest City Council adjourned to a closed session not listed on the agenda April 4 to discuss a legal matter to do with Neel. According to City Attorney Lloyd Pilchen, it was an exception to the Brown Act because council heard about it at the last minute and the matter was urgent.