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'Overblown' dispute prompts CNIGA walkout

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - At least a half dozen member tribes in the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA) resigned during a recent meeting, yet officials on both sides of the issue say that media reports of a deep and permanent schism within California's largest and most powerful Indian gaming lobbying group are overblown.

Both sides admit, however, that some tribes have grown dissatisfied with CNIGA. The group represents 75 tribes in California, which are mostly, but not exclusively, involved in gaming.

The resignations of at least six tribes took place during a Dec. 5 meeting held at the Viejas reservation. The hosts were among the tribes to submit a letter of resignation. The others were the San Diego county Pala tribe; the San Joaquin Valley-based Santa Rosa Rancheria; and the Jackson Rancheria, the Rumsey tribe and the United Auburn tribe, all based in Northern California.

Another 31 additional tribes have not yet paid their dues and their status is in question.

Lost in all the press frenzy were the results of the CNIGA elections. Former Morongo chairwoman Mary Ann Andreas won the vice-chairmanship. Pechanga Development Corporation President Anthony Miranda will continue as Secretary.

Andreas was conciliatory in her acceptance statement, telling the departing tribes that the "door is always open" and acknowledging their right to leave.

"We're all about sovereignty, and it's their sovereign right to make a choice," she said.

Two motives have been cited for the exodus. According to one, some tribes have personal disputes. According to another, the departing group was disillusioned with the lobbying group's tactics.

The host Viejas was angered by CNIGA's support of the neighboring Ewiiaapaayp band's rights to build a casino near the already existing Viejas operation. Some of the other tribes have grown weary of the increasingly confrontational posturing of CNIGA in recent dealings with state and local governments, and specifically with the five-member state Gambling Control Commission appointed by Gov. Davis.

CNIGA officials and their allies claim that the organization is merely sticking to its guns to insure that tribal sovereignty is protected. CNIGA executive director Jacob Coin and spokeswoman Susan Jensen admit that some tribes have expressed dissatisfaction, but say this is just par for the course.

"The interests of certain member tribes may not always be in line with the organization as a whole," said Jensen. "However, as membership changes the objectives and goals (of CNIGA) do not."

Coin listed a series of CNIGA efforts to protect Indian gaming interests in California. His list included the prevention of publicly traded corporations from investing in state card clubs, which he said would have expanded non-Indian gaming in the state.

Recent press reports have indicated that CNIGA has problems attracting a quorum of 30 percent of its members. Coin and Jensen said the only time that the quorum was in question was at a recent meeting in the city of Redding in the far northern reaches of state - an eight-hour or more drive for the numerous gaming tribes in Southern California.

Coin said that discontent was a natural process after the major battles for gaming had been won.

"During our struggle to make sure that Indian gaming was secure and legal (in California) our common enemy was poverty. Now that we've secured that right, tribal intergovernmental issues are going to surface; it's just part of the process," he said.

Howard Dickstein, an attorney who represents five gaming tribes, agreed with Coin that these disagreements were just part of the process. Dickstein said he does not believe that any disagreements with the organization are permanent. He likened the disagreements to that of any collection of sovereigns and said that like the international community of governments, alliances will always shift and rearrange themselves as necessary.

Dickstein hastened to state that he feels that he and Coin have mutual respect and admiration. However, he expressed criticism of recent CNIGA positions and tactics. He singled out CNIGA's methods for calculating the amount in the revenue sharing trust fund, an account paid into by large gaming tribes for the Gambling Control Commission to distribute to smaller gaming and completely non-gaming tribes.

In October CNIGA called for an audit of the trust fund and accused the Gambling Control Commission of using the money as a political football. CNIGA complained to Indian Country Today that funds were not being disbursed in a timely manner.

Dickstein responded that during this time the Commission had actually disbursed all but a single dollar of the multi-million dollar account and sent the checks directly to the tribes.

Another issue that rankled Dickstein and some of the member tribes was the characterization by CNIGA officials of an organization of gaming opponents, Stand Up for California, as a "hate group" after that organization set up a symposium in Sacramento of local governments to discuss how to deal with issues related to Indian gaming.

That conference was held while the National Congress of American Indians was meeting across the state in San Diego. CNIGA, which was already taken aback by the timing of the symposium, was further angered by the presence on the program of Gambling Control Commission chairman John Hensley, who has been battling with CNIGA for the last two years.

The "hate group" accusation surfaced at the symposium in the form of a letter from CNIGA chairwoman Brenda Soulliere. It prompted a hostile response from Hensley who, according to published reports, lashed out at CNIGA for "trafficking in inappropriate pejorative screed" and indicated that the organization was showing political immaturity.

Dickstein says he too took exception to the characterization and says he felt the situation could have been handled better.

"I think that CNIGA needs to realize that they can accomplish much more by enacting a certain degree of diplomacy in these matters," he said.

The Southern California Rincon band was not one of the immediately departing tribes. The tribe had been mentioned in at least two published reports and Chairman John Currier offered critical statements about the organization.

Currier told the San Diego Union Tribune that he was not sure whether CNIGA still represented his tribe's interests.

Tribal gaming consultant Michael Lombardi said that several dissenting members are trying to be politically expedient. He specifically mentioned Rincon chairman Currier who is facing what Lombardi characterized as a tough reelection battle in mid-December.

Calls to Currier's office were not returned.

However, Lombardi, like Coin and Dickstein, believes that the rift has been overstated. Though membership renewals were due in October, CNIGA's Jensen reports that this deadline is not definite and tribes are welcome to join or renew membership throughout the year.

"Coalitions of several sovereign governments are always hard to sustain and it's equally difficult to keep everyone happy all the time," said Lombardi.

High- level departures could be a severe blow to CNIGA's budget since some of the larger gaming tribes pay as much as $70,000 annually for membership dues.