Silence telling in casino deal
In May, Spokane County and the city of Spokane adopted policies outlined in the Fairchild Joint Land Use Study to protect Fairchild Air Force Base from development that could threaten the base’s ability to conduct current and future missions. These policies restrict the type and density of development acceptable in the areas immediately surrounding the base. These local governments should be applauded for their efforts to champion one of the region’s most important economic engines.
What is extremely troubling is that our county commissioners have been muzzled when it comes to discussing one of the greatest threats to Fairchild’s future, namely the proposal by the Spokane Tribe to build an off-reservation casino/resort near the base. Under the terms of the study, a commercial developer wouldn’t be allowed to move forward with the plan the tribe has proposed. The tribe is not bound to honor those rules, and every indication suggests the Spokanes intend to ignore them. Why then are the commissioners’ hands tied on this very important issue?
In 2010, before many of the details of the tribe’s project were known to the public, a previous board of commissioners voted 2-1 to enter into a series of agreements with the tribe and the city of Airway Heights. This interlocal agreement outlines how the tribe would compensate Airway Heights and Spokane County for any development impacts on public services. It also contains a section that dictates what county officials can and cannot say about the proposed casino development.
The agreement states in part that, “the County agrees to remain ‘neutral’… ‘neutral’ shall mean not submitting any written communication to any official of the United States Department of the Interior, the Office of the Governor, or other entities.”
The result is that the current commissioners are denied the opportunity to participate in the dialogue surrounding one of the most important decisions confronting our community.
Since those agreements were signed more than two years ago, a great deal has happened. One of the commissioners who agreed to the neutrality clause is no longer there and, in fact, has served as co-chair of Friends of STEP, a group advocating the proposed development. More information about the casino and its potential consequences have come to light. As a result, more than 20 current and former elected officials, including the mayors of Spokane and Cheney, a bipartisan group of Washington state senators and representatives, and a former Washington governor, have gone on record opposing the project.
They do so for a variety of reasons, ranging from concerns about the expansion of gaming and the precedent that this project would set, to the risk that it poses to our region’s largest employer – Fairchild. Even the recently departed base commander cautioned the community about the risk of high-occupancy developments near the base and how they might cause negative impacts, including flight path restrictions and constraints on air crew training.
Two current commissioners agree that the issue is too important to remain silent. Commissioners Todd Mielke and Al French sent a letter to the Airway Heights council objecting to the neutrality clause and asking for its deletion because it prevents them from commenting on the casino and therefore denies them the ability to fulfill their legislative duties, and speak for their constituents in this very important process.
The Airway Heights City Council, at the urging of tribal representatives, unanimously opposed this request and effectively kept the muzzle on the commissioners. The council went so far as to suggest Spokane County should have to forfeit some or all of the mitigation payments if they wanted to be let out of the neutrality clause, essentially acknowledging that these payments had been exchanged for the commissioner’s silence on this project.
As the decision nears on the tribe’s development, all of our elected leaders should be allowed the opportunity to provide input in this process.
Furthermore, it is especially important that the federal delegation representing our community – Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers – add their voices to the growing number calling for the protection of Fairchild and the prevention of other possibly negative outcomes that may result from this proposed development.
All of this begs the question: Why does the tribe insist on the silence of our commissioners? Maybe they knew what we know now: The more you learn about their proposal, the less sense it makes for our community.
Michael A. Senske is the president and chief executive officer of Pearson Packaging Systems.