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Pequots' attorneys skip Schemitzun to draft compact

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MASHANTUCKET, Conn. -- As dancers from 500 tribal nations gathered for the annual Schemitzun Pow Wow, the Mashantucket Pequot legal staff stayed in its office to draft an updated land compact with neighboring towns.

But the mood after the Pequot's latest public meeting with town leaders was decidedly downbeat. The reaction from towns which spent seven years fighting expansion of the Mashantucket reservation basically was that the lawyers might just as well have gone to the pow wow.

The third in a series of round table sessions over the land-into-trust application ran about an hour over the time allocated August 20, but town leaders ended as they began by demanding more clarification of Mashantucket Pequot concessions.

"It's rough," said freshman Rep. Rob Simmons, Republican of Connecticut's Second District, who sponsored the meetings to fulfill a campaign pledge. Tribal Chairman Kenneth Reels proposed limiting expansion of the reservation trust land to an additional 880 acres over the next 35 years, in return for town support for the application.

The expansion beyond the 2,000 acres of the tribe's 1983 land claim settlement deal requires approval of the secretary of the Interior.

North Stonington, Preston and Ledyard, the towns surrounding the Mashantucket Reservation, and its Foxwoods Casino Resort, have gone to court to oppose any increase in tribal sovereign territory.

In a more detailed proposal at the meeting, Reels offered to make payments in lieu of taxes based on improvements on the new trust land and promised to abide by town zoning decisions. Pressed by Ledyard Mayor Wesley J. Johnson, he indicated the tribe would accept inspections by town assessors and building code inspectors.

Pequot Governmental Affairs Representative John Guevremont described the offer as a significant "limited waiver of sovereign immunity."

Reels suggested that attorneys from both sides meet to work out the language. But North Stonington First Selectman Nicholas H. Mullane II demanded that the Pequot legal team spell out its concessions in a new proposal to the towns.

"It's your responsibility to present us with a draft," he said. "You do understand that this document is now an attachment to the original proposal," he added, referring to Reels' further concessions.

Reels asked the town leaders to commit to presenting the proposal to their voters. Mullane replied that he would refer the existing offer to his board of selectmen with a recommendation to vote against it.

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"We have a real philosophical difficulty with the compact you are trying to discuss," he said.

Participants described the outset of the meeting as even rockier than the strained tone of its closing.

Town leaders in their opening statements criticized what they called the "lack of clarity" of the Pequot proposal.

Reels began with an appeal to a higher order. "I feel that this is a spiritual process and lesson which we -- meaning tribal members and the three adjacent town's citizens -- are all being tested on."

Even the setting of the meeting in the neutral territory of a conference room of the Norwich Ramada was a test of negotiating skill. Reels and tribal council members Pedro Johnson and Michael Thomas sat at a circular table across from the three town officials as Congressman Simmons presided. Spectators surrounded the table in concentric circles of chairs devoted to their status -- press, town and tribal advisers -- like the rings of Dante's Inferno.

Television cameras recorded the session for the Connecticut Network, but the lack of a sound system made the proceedings hard for the back rows to follow.

The issue first arose in January 1993 when the Pequots petitioned the secretary of Interior to convert a fee holding of 165 acres into federal trust land. When he agreed in May 1995, the three towns filed suit. They charged that the expansion violated the terms of the 1983 federal act that recognized the Mashantucket Pequot tribe and settled its land claims suit.

The U.S. District Court accepted the argument and stayed the conversion, but the Court of Appeals on Sept. 25, 2000, overturned the ruling. The three-judge appellate bench said the lower court failed to use the accepted rule of interpreting American Indian treaties and sent the case back for a new hearing.

The towns appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, aided by state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, but the high court refused to review it. District Court Judge Robert N. Chatigny put the case aside during the series of town-tribe meetings, hoping they would work out a settlement.

At the outset of the meetings, Reels expanded the trust plans to 880 acres, including a number of tribal housing tracts and land for cultural purposes, as well as the original commercial tract planned for a site across the highway from the casino.

Although tribal officials have not said so directly, they indicate that cultural use would include a permanent facility for the annual Schemitzun Green Corn Festival, now in its 10th year. The festival includes one of the country's largest pow wows as well as bull riding and bareback horsemanship competitions.

In spite of political tensions with the towns, say tribal spokesmen, the cooperation with North Stonington on Schemitzun has gone without a hitch.