Funds pour in to put North Fork casino on ballot

editor@sierrastar.comSeptember 24, 2013 

Table Mountain Casino in Friant has contributed $660,000 and Brigade Capitol Management of New York, an investor and bond holder in Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold, has added $600,000 to help finance the effort to place the proposed North Fork Mono Indian casino state compact on the November 2014 ballot.

A self-proclaimed gambling watchdog group, Stand Up for California, headed by Cheryl Schmit, filed a referendum July 9 seeking to reverse the Legislature's approval of the compact for the proposed casino near Highway 99, north of Madera. The referendum is titled "Keep Vegas-Style Casinos out of Neighborhoods."

Schmit, has been vocal against the "off-reservation" project, and wants the issue decided by the voters of California. This is not the first time Schmit has been involved in a ballot referendum. She was part of a failed state-wide referendum in 2008 to overturn four tribal compacts involving operating casinos.

Schmit filed the petition for the referendum with Secretary of State Debra Brown who approved the petition in mid-July, allowing the opponents to proceed with the gathering of the 504,760 signatures required to place the issue on the statewide November ballot.

Schmit has previously stated that the approval for the project would set a precedent for similar developments around the state near freeways and urban communities.

"Our argument has always been that the North Fork proposal was contrary to the promises of Proposition 1A that the citizens of California voted on," Schmit said.

"It is my hope that the voters across the state will give us a victory where state government did not," Schmit said. "Stand Up for California is not anti-gambling. We are concerned about off-reservation gaming, which this is."

The state Assembly and Senate ratified AB 277, the tribe-state agreement that spells out the tribe's revenue sharing obligations from casino profits. The Assembly and Senate approvals, along with the governor's July 3 approval, were big steps for the tribe in the process to build the multi-million dollar casino with 2,000 slot machines on a 305-acre site west of 99 and Ave.17.

Other contributions have come from Riva Ridge Recovery Fund ($137,000), DG Capitol Management of New York ($69,500), and Club One Casino of Fresno ($15,000). The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians has pledged $60,000 to the ballot effort.

Proponents of the petition are faced with the task of gathering the 504,760 signatures required to place the issue on the ballot. The deadline for the required signatures is Monday, Sept. 30. The 504,670 signatures represents 5% of the total votes cast for governor in the 2010 gubernatorial election.

Andrew Acosta, a political consultant working on the campaign, said last week the signature efforts are progressing well.

"We are confident that we will have enough (signatures) to qualify (for the ballot)."

Supporters of an off-reservation casino for the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians have also formed a campaign committee. The committee, known as "Voters for Central Valley Jobs and the Environment," is made up of a coalition of tribes, labor organizations, and Madera Business Coalition and environmental groups, and Station Casino, who is partnering with the tribe to develop the casino.

"The campaign committee was formed to coordinate the incredible support the North Fork project enjoys in the North Fork Rancheria's nearly decade-long effort to bring jobs, business opportunity, and community funding to Madera County and the Central Valley, one of the poorest, most economically-strapped regions in the state and nation," said Elaine Bethel-Fink, chairperson of the tribal council.

Financial contributions to the committee were not divulged.

Bethel-Fink also questioned the referendum process.

"With enough money to pay signature gatherers, anyone can qualify just about anything for the ballot," Bethel-Fink said. "But the North Fork Rancheria, Madera County and the State of California feel strongly that they can and should make their own economic development and land use decisions — and not have decisions imposed on them by Wall Street hedge funds and wealthy tribes fearful of competition."

Charles Altekruse, director of community relations for the tribe, said tribal leaders have been receiving numerous reports that the signature gathers are providing false information to people to get them to sign the referendum.

"We have had reports that people are being told this is about big Las Vegas casinos taking money from the poor Indians, and that the measure will force tribes to follow environmental rules as if we currently are not," Altekruse said. "Of course in both cases, this is not true."

According to Altekruse, others have said if the Mono casino is allowed to build on Highway 99, soon casinos will be built on corners in every city in the state.

"There are many restrictions involved in the process we went through," Altekruse said. "We are only the sixth tribe in the past 25 years to go through this very demanding two-part approval process and be approved."

Altekruse said the referendum is fighting old battles.

"Prop 1A is plain and simple," he said. "It affirms tribal gaming on Indian land in accordance with federal law. We (Mono tribe) are in complete compliance and it is the the opponents who keep inserting and twisting words and meaning."

Altekruse said the tribe is not aware of any signature gathering in Madera County.

"It's odd that this outside group may be ignoring those most knowledgeable of the project — Madera County citizens," Altekruse said.

Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler hopes the signature gathering falls short of the necessary 504,760 signatures.

"They are attempting to stop the biggest economic producer Madera County will ever see for many many years," Wheeler said. "The revenue sharing compact the tribe has made with the state and other government entities is one of the most generous in the country."

Wheeler said the signatures are being gathered in metropolitan areas of the state like southern California and the Bay Area.

"The people signing this referendum don't even know what they are signing, nor do they know the positive economic impact the casino would provide for Madera county" Wheeler said. "And Cheryl Schmit has a successful casino — Thunder Valley — right in her backyard. Apparently what's good for Placer County isn't good for Madera County. This is an intrusion of our local economic development and land use planning authority of our county."

Wheeler has been supportive of the project from the start and feels it (the casino) deserves to move forward without any further delays.

"The North Fork Rancheria's casino project has undergone a decade of exhaustive review by federal, state, and local officials," Wheeler earlier told the Star. "This tribe has followed every rule and obligation and deserves to move forward with their project. Our county is in desperate need of the jobs, vendor business, public funding, and economic push that the North Fork project will bring to our region."

Referendum process

Once the signatures have been collected, they must be filed with county election clerks and the counties have eight working days to report the raw count of signatures to the Secretary of State.

If the raw count of signatures equals 100% or more of the total number of signatures needed to qualify the initiative measure, the Secretary of State notifies the county elections officials that they will have to randomly sample signatures for validation, to ensure petitions were signed by registered voters. If the result of the random sample indicates that 95% of the signatures are legitimate, the Secretary of State will then direct the county to verify every signature on the petition.

If the total number of valid signatures is less than 95% as required, the initiative measure will fail to qualify for the ballot. If the number of valid signatures is greater than 110% of the required number of signatures, the initiative measure is considered qualified.

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