Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Stupid election tricks

Rohnert Park held a special election today, for the purpose of putting two members of our City Council to a recall vote. As I write this entry, both Councilpersons appear to have held onto their seats by comfortable margins: roughly 55 percent opposed to the recall, and 45 percent in favor. I'm not a fan, particularly, of either Councilman Armando Flores (who has been on the City Council pretty much since the dawn of time) or Councilwoman Amie Spradlin (a relatively new member of the Council whose entire political career has circled around the issue that prompted the recall), but I'm glad they kept their jobs — if only because the effort to oust them was petty, ignorant, and typical of California politics these days.

Flores and Spradlin ired a coterie of townsfolk by helping to broker an agreement with a local Native American tribe, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, that plans to build a casino just outside the city's northwestern limits. According to the agreement, the Rancheria will pay the city of Rohnert Park about $200 million over the first 20 years of the casino's operation, ostensibly to help offset the additional cost of law enforcement and other city services. People opposed to the casino, led by a local minister and inveterate rabble-rouser named Harry "Chip" Worthington, got the notion into their heads (with some pounding from the Chipmunk) that booting Flores and Spradlin off the Council would somehow stop the tribe from building the casino.

Only one problem with that concept: it just ain't so.

By federal law, Native American tribes can establish tribal lands wherever they please, so long as they acquire the land by legal means, better known as cash American on the barrelhead. Furthermore, thanks to the (as usual) short-sighted voting populace of our fair state, tribes have the legal right to build Vegas-style casinos on their tribal lands if they so choose. In March 2000, we Californians passed Proposition 1A by a two-to-one margin, legalizing slot machines and certain house-banked casino games in Indian casinos. (Previously, California tribes were only permitted to offer bingo, video lottery machines, and a modified player-pool form of blackjack.) To put it another way, we dug our casino foundation, and now we have to lie in it.

Funny how, when Prop. 1A was on the ballot, there was precious little public consternation over it in this neck of the woods — as I noted above, the measure passed with almost two-thirds of the vote. But, you see, at that time all the Indian casinos in existence were way out in the boondocks. The nearest ones to us were up north in sparsely populated Mendocino and Lake counties. It wasn't until the Graton Rancheria, led by Loyola Marymount professor and best-selling author Greg Sarris as tribal chairman, decided that they wanted to park their little slice of Vegas in traffic-gridlocked Sonoma County that people — and by "people," I mostly mean your non-Native American Anglo-Saxon folks — got up in arms. Originally, the tribe suggested a site near Infineon Raceway at Sears Point, which draws crowds in excess of 100,000 for NASCAR, NHRA, and other Days of Thunder-inspired events. When the locals bridled at that, Sarris and company revealed what they had really intended all along, which was to build their casino just outside Rohnert Park, in the middle of a potential customer base of nearly 300,000 people (figuring RP at 45K, Santa Rosa at 150K, Petaluma at 55K, Windsor at 25K, and the smaller communities totaling another 25K between them).

Faced with a new neighbor that approximated the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, the Rohnert Park City Council had two choices: strike a cooperation pact with the Rancheria that would help financially mitigate the disadvantages of having a casino right next door, or fuss and fume and gain nothing, while the casino gets built anyway. They chose the former, and I can't say I blame them. If you have to have a casino within a stone's throw — and you do have to, if the tribe so decides — better you should have it with $200 extra-large in the city coffers than have it with pocket lint and hurt feelings.

I think putting a casino — and all the attendant traffic, crime, and general mayhem that will surely follow — in a suburban community like ours is a morally and logically bankrupt idea. But when the slot machine deals you three lemons, sometimes all you can do is stir up a pitcher of lemonade. I think that's what Councilpersons Spradlin and Flores were trying to accomplish. To kick them out of office for making the best of a lousy situation would have been foolish, mean-spirited, and a Pyrrhic victory for the anti-casino folks, who, NIMBY or not, are going to have a casino in their back yard. I don't like that inevitability either, but I'm not prepared to punish people for something that isn't their fault. Blame your fellow voters for not reading Prop. 1A carefully before they scribbled in the "YES" box.

You can probably tell how I voted in today's election. (KJ and I became permanent absentee voters when she was undergoing chemotherapy, so we actually voted a couple of weeks ago.) I'm not embarrassed to explain why.

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