It is said that if you ever saw how sausage was made, you would never eat it. And so it was that after watching the proceedings of the State Assembly Organizational Committee in Sacramento last Wednesday I felt sickness in my stomach and disillusionment in my heart.
As one familiar with some issues affecting the industrial community, I had been asked to appear at a hearing opposing AB 277, which would enable the Indian gaming casino to be built in Madera. In addition to a few representatives from opposed Indian tribes, others appearing included one farmer, one pastor, and one very forthright Madera County supervisor.
Arriving in Sacramento, an attorney representing those opposed to off-reservation Indian gaming told us the committee was chaired by Los Angeles Assemblyman Isadore Hall III, whom the governor had directed to push the bill through committee for a floor vote. We were told to limit our comments to no more than one to three minutes and present our accompanying written material.
None of us was opposing Indian gaming in Madera County. Our issues related to safety, social impacts, and water at that specific location and generally to the integrity of the government process. My chief concern had first been raised by a Madera Airport commissioner. It was that the Environmental Impact Report overlooked the hazard of building a high occupancy casino/hotel in an airport take-off zone, contrary to the published land use safety guidelines under the State Aeronautics Act. I hoped to outline serious unanswered questions and present an air traffic map and other written material.
The pastor would point to published studies of the adverse social impacts of urban gambling and challenge the proponents' assertion that virtually no Maderans opposed a casino being built on the edge of town.
The farmer would point out that sinking wells for a high water usage development at this site would likely adversely impact the fragile local water table.
Finally, the county supervisor, representing the district where the casino would actually be located, objected, as did his predecessor, that the report (financed by outside gaming investors) misrepresented critical issues that could impact the county in perpetuity. He wanted to present to the committee one of several, six-inch thick binders containing scores of constituent letters objecting to the project.
When the hearing opened, we watched from the gallery, because every seat on the main floor was already occupied by proponents who had been bused in. Chairman Hall announced that he supported the bill and proceeded to call one witness after another to testify without interruption to its merits.
Witnesses included North Fork tribal officials and attorneys, the governor's representative, and a number of current and past Madera elected officials supporting the casino. After nearly two hours, opponents were finally admitted to the chamber and lined up behind the public comment microphone. The chair admonished us to state our name, whom we represented, whether we were "for or opposed" to the bill, then to remove ourselves from the microphone forthwith.
The first at the podium was the supervisor representing some 35,000 Maderans. He identified himself as the supervisor of the affected district and began to step forward to present the binder. The chairman immediately and sternly rebuffed him, and after the supervisor pleaded to make a few comments, his microphone was cut off and the sergeant-at-arms briefly summoned. The exasperated supervisor was reduced to reporting that he opposed the bill without the dignity of being allowed to explain why.
Although Chairman Hall, at his own discretion, later allowed five opposed tribal representatives to make three-minute statements, the rest of us were limited to stating our name, represented group, and that we were opposed.
Thus, were the inconvenient questions of public safety, community social impacts, water resourcing, and government transparency summarily dispatched. The session ended amid much self-congratulation by the proponents. Chairman Hall had his victory. And the proceedings had demonstrated that parliamentary procedure strictly controlled by the chair of a committee or a board can wield the imperious power of censorship with shocking effectiveness.
As our country becomes increasingly fractured along party, ethnic, class, and special interest lines, we should denounce the use of parliamentary manipulation at any level of government that cynically limits the balanced consideration of opposing views. Perhaps to the chairman we must all rise and salute, "All Hail, Honorable Chairman!"... but in our aching gut we may wonder, "What toxic ingredients have you mixed into our political sausage?"
-- Christopher Green is the GM/CEO of U.S. Rack, Inc. in Madera