Relations between Sonoma County officials and the Indian tribe that has started work on a 3,000-slot machine casino next to Rohnert Park appear to have soured as the two sides approach negotiations about how the tribe will alleviate the project's impacts.
The chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria on Wednesday said county supervisors are "putting out inaccurate and misleading information about our project."
Greg Sarris, in a statement issued through the tribe's attorney, also said statements by at "least one supervisor" have "caused the tribe to question whether the county board is serious about negotiating in a respectful manner on a government to government basis."
The tribe's attorney, John Maier, declined to identify which supervisor.
The tribe and county officials are expected to begin negotiating within weeks in a process they agreed to in a 2004 contract. Supervisors have scheduled a town hall meeting for Thursday in Rohnert Park to get public comment in advance of those talks.
Sarris on Tuesday in an interview with KGO-TV upped the ante on the negotiations, saying that if they go into arbitration — as provided for in the 2004 contract — the county would lose its chance to get any additional money from the tribe.
Supervisors on Wednesday said they wanted to avoid that eventuality.
"I still strongly believe that we need to (negotiate) in a good faith manner and I think the county as a whole is demonstrating that good faith effort," said Supervisor Efren Carrillo.
"My hope and desire is that we not end up in baseball-style arbitration because at that point, I fear, we would not be able to fully mitigate or obtain the full mitigations," he said.
Other supervisors offered varying views on the tribe's stance.
Supervisor David Rabbitt suggested that on the eve of talks between "what are essentially two sovereign nations," Sarris's comments were not unexpected. "I think it's a prelude to negotiations; I don't think it's out of the ordinary."
Supervisor Valerie Brown said the tribe is reacting to public criticism resurgent since March. That is when the casino began to move definitively toward fruition after nine years of court battles, the bankruptcy of the tribe's Las Vegas backers and lengthy environmental reports.
"I believe that the tribe feels that they have been more willing to deal with local government than any tribe in the state," said Brown, referring to the 2004 agreement with the county and a $200 million revenue-sharing deal the tribe struck with Rohnert Park in 2003.
"They are being vilified for it," Brown said. "I don't know how as a tribe, that can't have a reverberating effect."
Sarris issued his statement through Maier after being asked about remarks he made on the television news report in which he appeared to renege on terms of the 2004 county-tribe contract.
They specify that if negotiations are not successful, both sides will accept the decision of a neutral arbitrator. In the agreement, which Sarris has touted as an example of the tribe's eagerness to work constructively with the larger community, the tribe waived its sovereign immunity in order to accept the arbitration.
Prior to arbitration, the county and tribe have 90 days to negotiate how the tribe would address, financially and otherwise, casino impacts on areas ranging from traffic to crime.