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Sat., Oct. 13, 2012

Guest opinion: Tribe project gag is odious

The greatest responsibility of any elected official is to carefully research, consider and facilitate debate about the most important issues affecting our community. Today, one of Spokane County’s most critical issues is the Spokane Tribe of Indian’s proposed casino/retail complex near Fairchild Air Force Base. Sadly, a muzzle has been placed on me and the majority of the Spokane Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) that prevents us from doing our jobs on behalf of our constituents.

Ironically, the individual making the plea for support of the casino project made a career out of opposing economic development projects prior to and during her term as county commissioner.

Bonnie Mager’s primary tactic was to put private developers through a grueling public process, endless studies and the scrutiny of the project’s opponents. But now that she has become this project’s advocate, she’s doing everything she can to ignore concerns and avoid public scrutiny.

This muzzle is in place because, shortly before Mager was voted out of office, she led a majority on the BOCC to cut a deal with the city of Airway Heights and the Spokane Tribe of Indians to prevent future county commissioners from offering any opinion on the project to decision-makers – the federal government and the governor – in exchange for a cut of future casino profits.

Mager led a majority to promise to keep quiet about the casino prior to the county knowing the full scope of the project; prior to any environmental review being conducted; prior to any study of the impacts on the county; and prior to the adoption of the Joint Land Use Study requested and funded by the Air Force to protect Fairchild Air Force Base, the county’s largest employer, from encroachments that jeopardize future operations of the base.

Because of this contractual muzzle, when the federal government solicited feedback from the BOCC on the Spokane Tribe of Indian’s casino proposal I was not allowed to comment. How is the public’s interest served by this forced silence? As a community, would we allow this to happen with any other proposed project?

While I cannot speak to any specifics of the proposed casino, I can comment on the silence imposed upon me. If this sort of deal had been cut with a private developer, the elected officials involved would likely be removed from office. In a state that prides itself on open and transparent government, how can an agreement like this be allowed to stand?

Is this contract for silence even legal? The Washington state attorney general has stated that one legislative body cannot contract away a future legislative body’s core legislative function. The question a court must answer is whether the BOCC’s representation of its residents in a federally mandated review of the casino is a part of its core legislative functions. I believe I was elected to represent the interest of the approximately 476,000 residents of Spokane County.

In these economically challenging times governments should not have to spend taxpayer dollars filing lawsuits to ensure an open and honest process. So on behalf of the BOCC I went to the Airway Heights City Council and requested they remove the silencing clause from the contract. Unfortunately, the attorney for the Spokane Tribe of Indians spoke against the BOCC’s request and the city of Airway Heights agreed, insisting that the muzzle remain.

Our community should be outraged by a muzzle being placed on any elected official, or any citizen. If the Spokane Tribe of Indians’ proposed casino is a good project then it will survive a thorough review and open debate, just like any other project is required to undergo. That was Mager’s mantra prior to becoming involved with this project, her special interest. Now, Mager wants nothing to stand in her way, including the facts.

As an observer of this process you should be asking yourself “What potential information about this project does the BOCC have that the Airway Heights mayor, City Council and the Spokane Tribe of Indians do not want you to know?” I wish I could tell you.

Al French is serving his first term as Spokane County commissioner, having won the seat formerly occupied by Bonnie Mager in the 2010 election.

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