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California voters favor Graton Rancheria

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ROHNERT PARK, Calif. - Though Indian gaming loomed large in last year's
recall of Gov. Gray Davis it loomed even larger in this bedroom community
at the edge of California's wine country. This time however the recall
effort failed.

About half the registered voters in this maze of strip malls, arced streets
and cul-de-sacs cast ballots in this post-1950s planned community. At issue
was a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) by two Rohnert Park City council
members with the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria.

City Council Members Armando Flores and Amie Spradlin fought off a recall
effort by nearly 10 percentage points with almost 42 percent voting in
favor of the recall and 51 percent voting against.

"We're very pleased that the voters accepted our position supporting a
memorandum of understanding with the Federated Indians of the Graton
Rancheria," said Flores.

The recall attracted attention from around the Bay Area. Rohnert Park
voters received a form letter from former California Assembly Speaker and
San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown who urged voters reject the recall.

Flores and Spradlin faced the recall after they had been targeted by an
anti-casino group called Stop the Casino 101 Coalition, a reference to the
old U.S. highway that bisects the town. The group's Web site lists only a
single contact number with an answering machine. The group did not return
requests for an interview.

However, a group of anti-casino activists, including a Rohnert Park
Assemblies of God pastor Chip Worthington, were contenders for the seats of
the targeted council members. Worthington, who ran specifically to replace
Flores, has been an outspoken casino opponent.

Worthington contends that his problem is not with the casino but with the
location. He said that the tribe has refused to negotiate for another
location. He said that he accepts that the tribe has a right to game in the
area but said that the current development was a little too close to town.

He paints a picture of shady back-room deals with a prominent local
developer and contends that the city council is under the control of
"special interest developers."

Another problem Worthington said he has with the deal is that no open
meetings were held in Rohnert Park during the proposal process and he
claims the one community meeting that was held was to "announce a done
deal."

It should be noted that the tribe had held previous open community meetings
in the cities of Sonoma and Petaluma for an earlier proposed site.

Worthington also claimed his group was badly outspent in the election and
that was the primary reason his side lost.

Worthington has vowed to fight the project, which is currently in the
environmental assessment stages, "every step of the way."

"Please let the tribe know that every environmental decision will be
challenged in court," said Worthington, who also added that there was an
outstanding lawsuit against the MOU signed with Rohnert Park.

Councilman Flores dismissed Worthington's assertion that it was a back-room
deal as "made up" and pointed out that the site in question actually sits
outside of Rohnert Park's city limits and that the tribe was under no
obligation to work with the city.

Noted author and Loyola Marymount English professor Greg Sarris, who serves
as chairman of Graton, hailed the vote and said he was glad that voters had
approved of "our approach to working with the community" and that the
election was proof that "their leaders had read them correctly."

When asked about the recall election, Sarris was also adamant that the
tribe, and its partner Station Casinos, did not participate in the recall
election.

"We did not take an active roll in it," said Sarris.

The deal in question seeks to have a revenue sharing agreement with the
city that the tribe claims will bring in $200 million over 20 years. Sarris
claimed a joint council comprised of the Rohnert Park City Council and the
Graton council will manage the money raised by the casino though some money
is to be earmarked for specific charitable projects.

The Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria have fought a long battle
that has taken many twists and turns since they were granted federal
recognition in 2000. The tribe is descended from local Coastal Miwok
Indians that greeted Sir Francis Drake in the late 16th century when the
adventuring English seafarer reached the coast of what is now Marin County.

From then on tribal fortunes sank and the tribe eventually lost federal
status along with a slew of other California tribes in the 1950s.

Led by Sarris who serves as chairman of the tribe, Graton at first promised
that it would not seek a gaming establishment during the recognition
process. At the time he pointed out that the tribe's landholding had shrunk
to a single acre over the years and gaming was not a viable option.

In 2002 Sarris seemingly changed his mind citing that the other economic
ideas that Sarris and the tribe had pitched were also not viable options,
such as agriculture and aquaculture. At the time Sarris argued that the
fiscal return on these options were at best minimal and profits would only
equal a median-priced house in the area and that gaming was the only
potential alternative.

However the move still raised eyebrows from gaming opponents who charged
that Sarris had planned on a casino all along.

The tribe tried for an area near the famed Sear's Point (now Infineon)
Raceway and had a fairly grandiose plan that included tribal housing and an
adjacent nature preserve. When that deal fell through the tribe then
shifted its efforts to the stretch of land on the western edge of Rohnert
Park.