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Chukchansi council sworn in, conflicts may remain

In what could be a positive step to reopening Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, the Chukchansi tribe’s elected council was sworn in last week during a tribal ceremony in Oakhurst.

The ceremony followed years of tribal divisions between multiple factions, capped by a raid in October last year that closed the casino over security concerns.

Several contesting groups still claim they have rightful leadership which could continue to delay the reopening process. The Oct. 3 election was upheld by Indian Dispute Resolution Services after it reviewed appeals filed by four candidates.

Sworn in Oct. 26 at the Oakhurst Community Center were former tribal chairman and faction leader Morris Reid, along with six supporters: Claudia Gonzales as chair; Nokomis Hernandez as vice-chair; Tom Walker as secretary; and Dixie Jackson as treasurer.

Reid, Harold Hammond, and Dora Jones fill out the remaining seats as members at-large.

One of the first goals for the council is to get the casino reopened.

“Please be patient,” Reid said in a statement, noting the tribe’s last uncontested election was in 2010. “It took four years to put us here but we are working hard already to get us moving forward again.”

To do so, the council must get approval from the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), the state Attorney General’s Office, and the U.S. District Court.

NIGC Director of Public Affairs Michael Odle said in a release: “Our priority is to ensure the facility reopens under circumstances that protect the safety of patrons, employees, and tribal members and so that the issues which led to the closure in the first place are not repeated. From our standpoint there is no timeframe as to when this will occur.”

Also necessary is an agreement with Madera County on a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which was approved by the Board of Supervisors in September.

In it, the county insists on $3.2 million paid up front to cover three missed years of annual disbursements for public safety, as well as additional contributions and yearly payments to the county’s budget, at Fire Station No. 8, and for programs like road improvement, neighborhood housing, or for education on alcohol and gambling addiction.

“This is the best step the tribe has gotten for a while,” District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler said of the election. “It’s really one of the best things that’s happened ... they’d love to have (the casino) open before Thanksgiving, I don’t think they can, but it’s a possibility if they sign our MOU.”

The Sierra Star’s full story on that MOU is available at http://goo.gl/SPRswP.

Hernandez added the tribe also wishes, on its own, to include education, elder health and wellness, emergency assistance, and other benefits for their members.

“For the community, we have more than 1,000 (casino) employees and provide community grants,” Hernandez said. “We look forward to getting back to that important work.”

Outside the elected council and their work to reopen Chukchansi Gold, several groups oppose the results.

Monica Davis, who chairs the faction once led by Tex McDonald that raided the casino, said her group will conduct their own election in December.

She said they’ll also work with her cousin Luke Davis, who has his own group that says they’re the original family of less than 50 members, to fix up enrollment issues.

At least one person, formal tribal chair Reggie Lewis, indicated to the Fresno Bee he may have given up fighting for control as in previous years.

“Everybody wants everything to get pushed aside and get the casino open,” Lewis said. “I’m fine with that.”

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