Split Wampanoag tribe reaffirms Martha’s Vineyard bingo hall - MV Times

Off-Island members of the Wampanoag tribe boarded a bus at the Vineyard Haven Steamship Authority terminal Sunday for the trip to the general membership meeting. Photo by Nelson Sigelman.

Off-Island members of the Wampanoag tribe boarded a bus at the Vineyard Haven Steamship Authority terminal Sunday for the trip to the general membership meeting. Photo by Nelson Sigelman.

Meeting Sunday just a short distance from their long-unfinished community center building, members of the the Wampanoag tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) split evenly and rejected a petition request that the tribe give up its efforts to build a gaming facility on tribal lands in the smallest town on Martha’s Vineyard.

The vote was 110 to 110, with 8 votes disqualified due to “nonconformity,” Tobias Vanderhoop, chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, said in an email to The Times.

Mr. Vanderhoop said voters were asked to take action on the question, “Do you vote to repeal tribal council enacted resolutions on change of use of the unfinished community center building on tribal lands?”

“According to the tribal constitution, a referendum requires a two-thirds majority to pass,” Mr. Vanderhoop said, “and this initiative did not attain the required number of votes to become binding on the tribe. The will of our citizens, based on the result of today’s vote, is that there will be no change in the present course of the tribe.”

“The referendum did not pass, so we continue to pursue gaming on our tribal lands,” Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairman of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Corporation (AWGC), said in an email to The Times just after 6 pm Sunday.

Beverly Wright, a former five-time chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe from 1991 to 2004, and an opponent of building a gaming facility in town, told The Times following the vote that she was disappointed that the vote failed. “I guess it shows that the tribe is split evenly,” she said. “I’m thankful that the Vineyard population really turned out for us.”

Going forward, Ms. Wright said, it is time for the gaming corporation to be more transparent and inform tribal members of its plans. “It’s been cloak and dagger, we don’t even know who the backers are,” she said. “I certainly was not pleased with the slick and glitzy informational packages sent out to the tribal members.”

Ms. Wright said the packets implied that the tribe’s sovereignty was on the line. “That’s not true,” she said.

The Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association (AGHCA) has stood with the town and tribal members in opposition to gaming, and is a party to the suit now in federal court that will ultimately decide if the gaming hall will be built.

In an email to The Times, retired lawyer and longtime AGHCA president Larry Hohlt said, “We extend our appreciation to those tribal members who worked so hard to try to curb the tribal leadership’s efforts to establish a casino in Aquinnah. It is difficult to think of many locales less suited, on so many levels, for a casino.”

A petition circulated last month and signed by 73 members of the tribe set the stage for the Sunday general membership vote on whether to proceed with the bingo hall. The petition stated in part, “We the undersigned, being eligible voters, believe that gaming on ancestral lands will dramatically impact our culture, and believe that the social costs will far outweigh the uncertain economic benefits.”

Opponents faced a high bar in the needed two-thirds majority. The tribe’s membership currently stands at 1,289, according to recent court filings. Of those, 315 live on Martha’s Vineyard, while the majority live in high concentrations within Suffolk, Norfolk, Bristol, Plymouth, Barnstable, and Worcester counties.

Backers of the gaming effort mounted a strenuous and professional lobbying effort in the days leading up to the vote. Buses and vans were available Sunday to transport members to the Steamship Authority terminal in Woods Hole.

Good for the tribe and Aquinnah

On Sunday morning, as tourists arrived and departed in the summer heat, tribal members walked from the 11:30 am ferry to a waiting tour bus hired to transport them to the general membership meeting in Aquinnah. The bus with a capacity of 44 passengers departed nearly full.

A man who identified himself by the name Beating Drum, wearing a red baseball cap that said “Native Pride” and a T shirt with the caption “Honoring Mother Earth,” from Bourne, declined to say how he intended to vote. “I will say one thing,” he said; “if it does come about, it will open up a lot of jobs for people, for nontribal members and tribal members.”

Father and son Wes James, 68, and Jared James, 34, traveled from Plymouth for the vote.

As they waited to board the bus that would take them to Aquinnah, Wampanoag tribal members Wes James, left, and Jared james said a bingo hall in Aquinnah would benefit the tribe. Photo by Nelson Sigelman.

The younger Mr. James did not hesitate to state his opinion. “It’s good for the tribe,” he said of the proposed bingo hall, citing the money it would provide for a variety of social programs.

Mr. James did not share the view of Island tribal members that the Island’s smallest town was the wrong location for a gaming facility. The tribe’s land was the right place and the only place, he said.

“Of course Aquinnah is the right place for it; where else do you have it?” he said. “There’s nowhere else out here. People are going to gamble no matter where it is. You can’t stop people from gambling; they’re going to gamble. Just because you put a building up doesn’t mean you’re going to make them do it … They’re going to leave the Island to go somewhere else to gamble if they want, so why not have it here? Bring some money into the tribe.”

Mr. James disputed the notion that changing the community center to a bingo hall would affect the town. He said it is not a casino and will change “nothing.”

Community center languished

The building slated to become a bingo hall was originally intended to be a community center. The 6,500-square-foot building was erected at taxpayer expense just off the entrance road to the tribal lands by two teams of Air Force reservists in 2004 and 2005, as a civil engineering community project. The shell has sat dormant and unfinished since the citizen-soldiers departed.

The Wampanoag tribe’s never-completed community center and would-be bingo hall was the subject of a hearing in federal court last Wednesday. Photo by Michael Cummo.

In the past, tribal leaders said they did not have the funds to complete the building. If the community center is not built, the tribe must repay a $1.2 million federal grant.

It was not until Gov. Deval Patrick signed the state’s 2011 expanded gaming law, which authorized up to three licenses for resort casinos in Massachusetts, that the tribe turned its full attention to the unfinished building. Spurned in its quest for a piece of the mainland gaming pie in favor of the Mashpee Wampanoags, in May 2011 the Gay Head tribal membership narrowly voted to turn its unfinished community center into a Class 2 gaming facility.

The gaming vote was unannounced, and revealed a clear split between tribal members who live on the mainland and Island residents. The vote was 21-10 with 7 abstentions. A second vote followed in May 2012 that affirmed the earlier vote, but by a narrower margin.

In December 2013, Governor Patrick filed suit in state court to block the tribe from moving forward with a gaming facility on Martha’s Vineyard. The case was later moved to federal court, and the commonwealth was joined by the town of Aquinnah and the AGHCA.

Class 2 gaming of the type envisioned for Aquinnah encompasses high-stakes bingo, poker, pull-tab cards, and associated electronic games that do not require coin slots. Unlike class 3 gaming, which encompasses all types of gaming and requires a tribe-state agreement, tribes may regulate Class II gaming on their own lands without state authority, as long as the state in which the tribe is located permits that type of gaming.

The heart of the issue is the extent to which the settlement agreement limits the tribe’s ability to build a casino, either in southeastern Massachusetts or on tribal lands on Martha’s Vineyard. Signed by tribal leadership in 1983 and ratified by the state legislature in 1985 and by Congress in 1987, the settlement agreement stipulated that the tribe was subject to local and state laws and zoning regulations in effect at the time.

The legal question still to be settled is whether the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) signed in 1988 trumps the settlement act Congress approved in 1987.

Awaiting a ruling

The battle now moves back to federal court. On August 12, U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV held a hearing on cross-motions for summary judgement.

Judge Saylor complimented all parties on their arguments, and said he would come to a decision “as quickly as I can.”

Appearing before Judge Saylor at the Moakley Courthouse, attorneys for the state, the tribe, the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association, and the town argued for more than an hour about the extent of the tribe’s governance on its land, the intentions of federal lawmakers nearly three decades ago, and whether case law applies to the Aquinnah case.

Judge Saylor said for opponents of tribal gaming to prevail, they would need to distinguish the situation on Martha’s Vineyard from a 20-year-old case where a federal appeals court required that the state of Rhode Island enter into “good faith negotiations” on a gaming compact with the Narragansett Indian Tribe.

The Wampanoag tribe is represented by Scott Crowell, who heads the Crowell Law Office Tribal Advocacy Group, a firm “committed to tribal advocacy and the preservation and furtherance of tribal sovereignty,” according to the group’s website.

Mr. Crowell said Congress’s passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act “implied repeal” of any special restrictions on gaming in the special act.

Aquinnah town counsel Ronald Rappaport argued it would be nonsensical for Congress to supersede a law it passed only a year earlier. Mr. Rappaport also said the town prohibits gaming on the land in question.

In his written arguments, Mr. Rappaport included as a fact that before Congress passed the federal act, the chairman of the Wampanoag Tribal Corporation at the time, who was Gladys Widdiss, testified at a Senate hearing that “We recognize and accept that no gaming on our lands is now or will in the future be possible.”

Assistant Attorney General Juliana Rice noted the tribe’s agreement with the town stems from a 1974 lawsuit the tribe brought against the town. Ms. Rice said the omnibus Indian gaming law “did nothing to disturb” the agreement that gives the state jurisdiction over the land that was granted to the tribe in the settlement.

Mr. Crowell said the state “refuses” to negotiate a gaming compact in good faith with the Aquinnah Wampanoags, and said Massachusetts has “turned its back on the very opportunity to have a voice” in its gaming plans.

On July 28, Judge Saylor enjoined the tribe from any further construction on the facility.

Tobias Vanderhoop, the chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, told the News Service the tribe could seek to expand beyond an electronic bingo hall, depending how the current project proceeds.

“This is a temporary project,” Mr. Vanderhoop told the State House News Service, following the hearing.

Earlier decisions have not favored the tribe. In a 33-page decision, dated Feb. 27, 2015, Judge Saylor leaned heavily on a decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in December 2004, which found that the tribe was required to seek a building permit in the winter of 2001 when it erected a small shed next to the shellfish hatchery on one of its ancestral lands, known as the Cook property, without a town building permit. The state’s highest court ruled that the tribe, then the only federally recognized tribe in Massachusetts, was not immune from zoning enforcement despite its federal recognition and its claim of sovereign immunity.

Pot of gold

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) said it expects to reap almost $400,000 per month — $4.5 million in the first year of operation — from its planned gaming hall, money that is sorely needed to fund a variety of tribal programs, according to court documents.

Tribal Chairman Tobias Vanderhoop said the tribe “currently has no economic base of its own” and is “almost entirely dependent on federal funds to support all governmental operations.”

In a meeting last month called to discuss opposition to the gaming hall, members of the Wampanoag tribe, including two former chairmen of the tribe, Beverly Wright and Donald Widdiss, Aquinnah selectman and tribal member Julianne Vanderhoop, and Kristina Hook, a former member of the tribal council, decried the lack of any information or openness within the tribe about its business plan.

Speakers said that an Aquinnah-based bingo parlor would be an economic and cultural folly.

In previous comments, Clyde W. Barrow, a director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and a national expert on gaming, said the location makes it unlikely that a casino in Aquinnah would be very successful, were it even able to overcome significant legal hurdles.

Mr. Barrow, director of the Northeastern Gaming Research Project, which studies casino gaming in the Northeast, said, “People who are already there and already traveling in that direction might choose to spend some time at the facility, but my perception is that people don’t go to Martha’s Vineyard to gamble.”

by Nelson Sigelman

Martha's Vineyard Tribe Voting on Controversial Casino Plan - ABC - AP

A Native American tribe is voting Sunday on a plan to turn an unfinished community center on Martha’s Vineyard into a gambling hall, an issue that’s divided tribe members, sparked a federal lawsuit and generated tensions with fellow residents of the famous resort island.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag want to offer up to 300 electronic, bingo-style games in the wood-shingled community center, which is located on tribal land on the island’s western side. The tribe is not proposing to offer casino table games like blackjack or roulette.

The voting comes as the state, town and a local community association have sued to block the project, arguing that a 1983 agreement granting the tribe nearly 500 acres on the island specifically prohibits gambling.

The tribe maintains it is within its rights as a federally-recognized tribe to conduct limited gambling on tribal lands. A federal judge heard arguments in the case Wednesday and will rule later.

Tensions between town and tribe governments escalated earlier this summer when the tribe transferred control of the building to its casino corporation and began doing work on the site. The town successfully won a court order halting the work, pending a ruling in the lawsuit.

Continue reading….

Attorneys for Tribe, Town Square off in Federal Court about Aquinnah Casino – MV Gazette

A proposed Aquinnah casino reached legal and political crossroads this week, as the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) asked a federal judge to validate its gambling project just days before its members are to vote on a bid to scrap it.

Lawyers for the tribe and for the state, the town and a community association made their final arguments Wednesday to U.S. District Judge F. Dennis Saylor 4th in Boston before he rules on a key question — does federal law allow the tribe to operate a class II gambling venue in Aquinnah.

At the end of an 80-minute hearing, the judge took the case under advisement, but promised to render a decision on cross motions for summary judgment “as quickly as I can.”

This Sunday, tribe members will gather for their quarterly general membership meeting in Aquinnah, where a ballot initiative asks them to stop the gambling project, planned for the tribe’s unfinished and vacant community center.

Members who oppose the casino gathered enough signatures last month to force a vote on whether to repeal all resolutions by the tribal council — the tribe’s elected leadership — to convert the 6,500-square-foot building into a gambling hall.

Continue reading…

Study Commissioned by Tribe Says Bingo Could Be Big Money – MV Gazette

Just how much money could a tribal gambling facility in Aquinnah hope to generate?

According to a study done for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), a class II casino — essentially, an electronic bingo facility — would net more than $4.5 million per year, a document filed in federal court this week shows.

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairman of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Corp., said the projections came from a marketing study that looked at the viability of a Class II gambling facility on tribal land. Details about the projections and the firm that compiled them have not been made public at the request of the tribe, which claims the information is proprietary.

But the study projects tribal governmental net revenue of $4.54 million in the first year of operation, $4.73 million in the second year and $4.93 million in the third, Mrs. Andrews-Maltais said in the court filing. On average, the gambling operation could provide net revenue of about $395,000 per month, she said.

Information about the Aquinnah facility’s target patrons and what could they expect to find at a class II facility was not provided in the court documents. But a former University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth professor who has studied the gambling landscape in New England says the tribe probably could not expect many day-trippers, patrons visiting for the day to gamble, given the casino’s proposed location at the far western end of the Vineyard.

– Continue reading….

Federal judge orders tribe to stop work on bingo hall - MV Times

U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV Tuesday issued a preliminary injunction that orders the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) to stop any work to turn its unfinished community center building into a gaming facility without first complying with the permit requirements of the town of Aquinnah, pending further order of the court.

Earlier this month, the tribe hired a contractor and said it planned to move forward with a plan to turn the 6,500-square-foot building, erected at taxpayer expense just off the entrance road to the tribal lands by two teams of Air Force reservists in 2004 and 2005 as a civil engineering community project, into a bingo parlor.

The tribe contends it does not need a building permit to proceed, because it meets federal gaming requirements.

On July 14, lawyer for the town of Aquinnah Ron Rappaport filed a motion for a temporary restraining order, and/or a preliminary injunction, against the tribe, the tribal council, and the Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Corporation in U.S. District Court.

The Office of the State Attorney General and the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association Inc. (AGHCA) filed motions in support of the town.

The preliminary injunction was a victory for the town and followed an hourlong hearing in federal court at which all sides squared off over the issues that will be fully argued in a hearing scheduled August 12 before Judge Saylor on cross-motions for summary judgement in the overarching case that began in December 2013, when Gov. Deval Patrick went to court to block the tribe from moving forward with a gaming facility on Martha’s Vineyard.

In federal court in Boston Tuesday Mr. Rappaport argued firmly that the tribe’s actions violated Aquinnah’s permitting procedures and neglected any observance of statutory building codes in an illegal renovation of an unused, derelict community center into a gaming hall.

Mr. Rappaport said the tribe had refused a town building inspection, and that current zoning for the facility does not include use as a casino.

Mr. Rappaport said that any change in the use and operation of the building must first be approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

“We care and have a public responsibility to care,” he said. “The tribe has the obligation to comply with us.”

Mr. Rappaport asked Judge Saylor to uphold what he called the status quo pending a final ruling on August 12.

Judge Saylor said, “I think the tribe argues that in effect, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act [IGRA] trumps local permitting requirements.”

Mr. Rappaport said, “There’s a significant difference between pursuing the right and actually starting construction.”

Lawyer Scott Crowell, arguing on behalf of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Corporation, said the IGRA, a federal bill signed in 1988, gave the tribe the right to establish a licensed casino in town.

Mr. Crowell said that the town’s arguments that its inspection procedures protected public safety disguised its actual motives. “They’re using the building-permit issue to prevent gaming,” he said.

Mr. Crowell said the issue presently is not one of upholding a status quo that Mr. Rappaport named earlier, but of what Congress in 1988 believed was the status quo.

He also said that the tribe provides personnel to the fire department, and that historically Aquinnah has utilized grant money awarded to the tribe for the use of the municipality, including upgrades in the firehouse. He called the argument that the community center was not inspected by a qualified person “frustrating.”

Mr. Crowell said the tribe has met its responsibility to public safety, including the documented employment of a licensed, qualified state building inspector, just not one employed by the town.

“We’re looking to uphold the laws of town and the laws of the Commonwealth,” Mr. Rappaport said in counter-arguments.

Mr. Rappaport said that the town’s objection to the tribe’s efforts should not be characterized as a gaming issue.

Judge Saylor said the standards of the preliminary injunction had been met, and he believed the issue is quite narrow. He said he believed that public health and safety are independent of the gaming issue, but that the appropriate permits should be obtained for the hall in accordance with the town, thereby mandating an immediate postponement of all construction in the building.

In addition to the upcoming court hearing on August 12, a petition signed by 73 members of the tribe has set the stage for a vote by the tribal membership on Sunday, August 16, on whether to proceed with the bingo hall. Two earlier votes favored construction. In each case, mainland tribal residents turned the tide.

by Paul Rowley

Casino Stop-Work Injunction Granted in Federal Court

Oral arguments were heard yesterday (July 28, 2015) in the Federal District Court regarding the Town’s motion seeking a preliminary injunction to stop work being undertaken by the Tribe to convert its unfinished community center into a casino.  This motion was supported in court filings and in supporting oral arguments by the Commonwealth and by AGHCA.

Shortly after the oral arguments were completed, Judge Saylor granted the Town’s motion “from the bench” and issued an order that enjoins and restrains the Tribe from commencing or continuing the construction of a gaming facility at or on the Wampanoag Community Center building site without first complying with the permit requirements of the Town of Aquinnah.  The granting of the injunction is not a ruling on the underlying merits of the case.

The Tribe has 30 days to appeal the injunction to the Circuit Court of Appeals.  It usually takes 75 days to be slotted into that Court’s calendar.

In the meantime, Judge Saylor has scheduled oral arguments on August 18 to hear the cross motions for summary judgment regarding the underlying merits of the casino case.  AGHCA has submitted a memorandum in support of the Town’s motion and also will participate in the oral arguments.  It is possible that Judge Saylor will rule on the merits of the case before an appeal of the preliminary injunction is heard or determined.

Order granting Injunction_(147044036)_(1)