Talk about your strange bedfellows. With the political battle over a tribal casino in Rohnert Park shifting to the state Legislature, local opponents are suddenly on the same side as other California Indian tribes.
These putative allies object to a gaming compact negotiated by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. The compact is a legal prerequisite for opening a casino, and legislative approval usually is routine.
However, given the political ties between legislative Democrats and tribal gaming interests, approval of the Graton compact isn't a sure thing. But defeating it may not mean being rid of the casino.
The compact allows the tribe to operate 3,000 slot machines and other table games, which would make it one of the largest casinos in the state. In return, the tribe would be obligated to make payments to mitigate casino impacts, such as traffic or increased crime.
To their credit, Graton tribal leaders already have agreed to pay $200 million over 20 years for public safety and other services in Rohnert Park. They also have established a process to calculate mitigation payments to Sonoma County.
That hasn't changed the minds of people who, for good reason, object to the expansion of tribal gaming into the suburban Bay Area. Tribes with casinos — or ambitions to open casinos — don't like provisions of the compact that put teeth in the mitigation agreements.
First, it requires the Graton tribe to deal directly with local government — Rohnert Park and Sonoma County — to address casino impacts. Other tribes deal only with state and federal authorities. The compact also requires the tribe to complete its mitigation agreements before opening its casino.
Finally, and perhaps most significant, any disagreement about mitigation would be settled by baseball-style arbitration, an all-or-nothing process in which each side makes its case and wins or loses.
Although the compact would be binding only on the Graton Indians, it could have major implications as the state negotiates with other tribes. With most of the original compacts set to expire in 2020, tribes are likely to begin seeking extensions soon, and Graton's agreement could become a precedent for other communities to seek input and arbitration.
They deserve it, but it won't come without fight. "Every Indian tribe in California will be up there telling the Legislature to vote against it," said Michael Lombardi, the gaming commission chairman for the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians, which operates a casino in Riverside County. "I haven't found one Indian tribe that supports this; they're on their own."
The unlikely alliance of casino-operating tribes and Sonoma County activists won't last any longer than the legislative debate on the Graton compact. If state legislators reject this deal, the next one — and there would be a next one — probably won't provide the same kind of leverage for local government to extract concessions on issues such as traffic and crime.
However, a case pending in the U.S. Supreme Court could give local residents more influence. The case, involving a Michigan casino, challenges the Interior Department's assertion that local property owners have no legal standing to challenge federal decisions to create or expand Indian reservations.
If the court sides with the Interior Department, it will effectively silence the neighbors of any potential reservation, limiting them to only hoping for a compact that addresses traffic, crime and other casino impacts.