A long-simmering feud is boiling over in an Indian tribe that aims to build the East Bay’s first Las Vegas-style casino, with a recall drive that threatens to stymie plans for a big casino in North Richmond, California.
A disgruntled minority of the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians has accused tribal leaders of stacking the membership rolls, unfair payouts and distorting the tribe’s history to sell the casino plan to federal officials.
The group last month completed a petition to recall tribal Chairman Don Arnold and a majority of the casino-friendly tribal council. If deemed valid, the 33 signatures would force a recall vote under the tribe’s constitution.
Former tribal Chairman Les Miller sent the petition by certified mail to the head of the tribe’s election board. A postal receipt shows he signed for it Nov. 14. The tribal constitution requires a vote within 30 days of receiving a recall petition, or those seats go vacant.
The deadline came and went this month with no word from tribal leaders. Last week, the tribe’s spokesman said the petition was never formally submitted.
"It is not considered an official submission if it is not actually presented at a tribal council meeting,"said Eric Zell. "No formal submission has been made, therefore no action is being pursued."
The tribe’s constitution makes no mention of that rule. Zell called it a common understanding "within the various provisions of the constitution." Miller said the response was typical misdirection by leaders intent on cutting off a recall vote.
"They’re not even paying attention to our constitution anymore," Miller said. "This is serious business, and they’re trying to sweep it under the rug."
Miller said he will ask federal Bureau of Indian Affairs officials to step in. The BIA has an advisory role in the tribe’s affairs, but primary authority over its casino bid.
Chairman Arnold has declined to address the dissidents’ specific claims, calling them internal matters.
"The recent allegations put forth by two or three Tribal Members are incorrect," he said in a prepared statement this fall.
The stakes are high in a dispute that has pitted relative against relative, often along geographic lines. Many of the dissidents live in Lake and Mendocino counties, close to the tribe’s former rancheria near Clear Lake and its main office in Lakeport.
Some North Bay tribal members say they would prefer a casino closer to home, despite far richer East Bay prospects. A Lake County casino could employ local tribal members and would have a better chance of approval, said Karen Valadez.
"I’d rather have one here where we are, where we’re from. I don’t like them saying we’re from down there when we’re not," she said.
Lately, tribal leaders have moved to tamp down the internal dissent.
They leveled charges against Les Miller. In August, Scotts Valley administrator Ben Wright drafted a law to bar members from claiming to speak for "an alternate tribal government of the Band." Penalties would range from members losing disbursements to expulsion from the tribe.
"This Tribal Council is not trying to stop free speech," he wrote. "Instead, we are asking those with differing opinions to discuss them wisely, and in some cases in private, so that their statements do not sabotage the casino project."
Miller has sought enrollment information on members who came from other tribes, to see if they ever quit those tribes. In August the Santo Domingo tribe in New Mexico said six newer Scotts Valley members remained enrolled there — violating Scotts Valley law.
That prompted a wave of anger from other tribal members, each of whom receives annual payments of nearly $10,000 from the tribe’s share of a state fund for non-casino tribes. Scotts Valley has 109 adult members. Its 110 minors do not receive the annual payments.
"That letter from New Mexico, that started it," said Ron Arnold, 44, a cousin of the tribal chairman and a recall group member.
The turmoil grew in October, when the tribal council dumped its election committee chairman. Michael Bryant had refused to certify the results of the tribe’s Sept. 1 election and, in a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, cited possible fraud.
Bryant told MediaNews that he was suspicious of absentee applications for the New Mexico members received shortly before the vote. He also said he found evidence of tampering.
"Somebody went into the box, opened it up and dropped ballots in there," said Bryant, who lives in San Leandro. "I felt we needed a re-election."
When Bryant refused a council demand that he rescind the letter, it removed him and had the election certified, according to his dismissal letter.
In October, Wright said a review found that none of the New Mexico members had cast a ballot. The New Mexico tribe has since told the Scotts Valley tribe it had received but not acted on forms from the six members to give up their memberships.
Wright said a review turned up dozens of similar cases for Scotts Valley members in which the tribe never received final disenrollment papers from other tribes.
As sovereign nations, Indian tribes are not subject to public inspection of their records.
Wright sees what he calls a bitter attempt to wreck the casino project.
"Les is just an angry guy," said Wright. "He doesn’t want the council to look good on anything."