The Spokane City Council is poised to reconsider its opposition to the Spokane Tribe of Indians’ proposed Airway Heights casino.
About two years ago, the council voted 4-3 to oppose the tribe’s proposed casino resort. The council now has a new make-up and Council President Ben Stuckart is pressing to shift the council back to neutral and mend the city’s relationship with the Spokane Tribe.
His efforts have sparked a new round of political accusations and pushback.
Supporters say a new casino would drive commerce and construction employment, then create hundreds of new jobs with its restaurants, hotel and other businesses.
Opponents argue it’s too close to Fairchild Air Force Base and endangers the base’s future. They also say that a second large casino on the West Plains could hurt businesses in downtown Spokane.
Among the most ardent opponents of a new casino is another tribe: The Kalispel Tribe of Indians, which built first on the West Plains and runs the successful Northern Quest Casino.
Stuckart said that when he was campaigning in 2011, a Northern Quest lobbyist told him that he had found four or five people willing to give him maximum campaign contributions. When Stuckart told the lobbyist he wouldn’t change his stance in support of the Spokane Tribe’s casino, the lobbyist told him: “You probably won’t hear from us,” Stuckart recalled.
Stuckart did receive $1,600 in contributions from the Spokane Tribe during his run for council president.
“If campaign contributions were how I made decisions, then I definitely would have taken the $8,000 and I would have been on a different side of the issue,” he said.
The Kalispel Tribe disputed Stuckart’s version of events.
“Council President Stuckart’s allegation that an unnamed lobbyist for the Kalispel Tribe sought to sway his position by promising campaign contributions is offensive and simply not true,” the tribe responded in an email. “We find it deeply troubling that in all of the direct conversations we’ve enjoyed with President Stuckart, he has never before mentioned these incredibly serious allegations. It sounds like a desperate attempt to divert the public’s attention away from his support for a project that would have long-lasting negative consequences for the community.”
Stuckart said he was willing to publicly discuss his interaction with the Northern Quest lobbyist after another elected leader accused him of being motivated by campaign contributions from the Spokane Tribe.
“If people are going to start questioning my motivations, then I think the truth of the situation needs to be told,” he said.
Stuckart said he prefers not to name the lobbyist because he doesn’t want to make the issue a “personal fight.”
To make the city neutral on the casino, he will need the vote of new Councilwoman Candace Mumm, who said she is undecided on the issue and plans to meet with Fairchild officials this week.
Mayor David Condon said it’s too late for the city to change positions.
“We have submitted and that’s closed,” Condon said. “We have the same concerns that have been voiced by our professional staff.”
It’s unclear if changing position will have an influence.
For the casino to win approval, the secretary of the interior, who oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, must determine that the casino is in the best interest of the Spokane Tribe and not detrimental to the surrounding community. Gov. Jay Inslee would have the final say.
The public comment period is closed.
Stuckart said it’s important for the city to reject the position because it soured the city’s relationship with the Spokane Tribe.
“It’s not in our jurisdiction,” Stuckart said. “We need to get back to a place where we’re dealing with each other respectfully.”
Tribal members who testified when the council voted to oppose the casino said they were offended by what they described as a rushed attempt to stifle the project. They noted the City Council considered the resolution the same night as another public hearing about the project in Airway Heights, making it difficult for supporters to testify.
“I can assure you that as long as I’m on (the tribal business) council, I will be aggressive in my opposition to work cooperatively with the city of Spokane and Spokane City Council as we have in the past related to water issues, dumping sewage into the Spokane River and any other issues related to the environment,” the then-vice chairman of the tribe’s business council, Mike Spencer, told the Spokane City Council just before it voted to oppose the casino.
The Spokane Tribe contributed to Spokane City Council races last year. It gave $1,300 to re-elect Councilman Jon Snyder, and $1,700 to Mumm, who won her race to replace term-limited Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin.
The tribe also contributed $4,900 to Citizens for Honest Government, a political action committee that promoted the candidacies of Snyder and Mumm.
In 2011, the Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority gave $800 to Stuckart’s opponent, Dennis Hession. It also gave Condon $1,600 and Councilman Mike Allen $800.
Snyder said the Spokane Tribe’s contributions didn’t influence his position. He noted that he did not receive a contribution from the tribe until after he voted in opposition to the 2012 resolution.
Councilwoman Amber Waldref, who voted against the 2012 resolution, has never received a contribution from the tribe to her campaign.
Spokane City Councilman Steve Salvatori said revisiting the issue is a mistake.
“We’re gambling an air base for a casino,” Salvatori said. “I just don’t think it’s a good trade.”
Supporters note that the Air Force has not taken a stance against the casino. Stuckart said the original resolution was disrespectful.
“The implication is that we should oppose every economic development project retail-wise outside city limits,” Stuckart said.
The article was changed on Feb. 27, 2014 to correct an error related to contributions from the Spokane Tribe of Indians to Councilwoman Amber Waldref’s election campaign. The tribe has never contributed to her campaigns.