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Tribe tosses vote on casino

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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HOGANSBURG — The St. Regis Mohawk tribe has thrown out a vote that would have ended its plan to build a casino in Sullivan County, saying members did not get proper advance notice of the vote.


Meanwhile, many members are questioning why the referendum happened in the first place.


"This casino has been going forward for years; we don't need a referendum now," said tribal member Stewart E. White. "Why have a referendum on something that's been ongoing for years and years, especially now with the new administration? Remember, it was Bush's guy who nixed the whole idea."


For the past 14 years, the tribe has been trying to start a casino in the Catskills, but the George W. Bush administration banned off-reservation gaming, putting an end to tribal efforts. The Obama White House has said it is revisiting the policy and considering allowing off-site gaming once again.


In last month's tribal referendum, voters turned down the envisioned $600 million, two-story casino, 178-140.


After investigating complaints that the tribe's referendum ordinance was not followed, its board of elections declared the vote null and void. The board found that notice of the election was not published early enough in advance of the vote.


Similarly, tribal members who do not live on the reservation did not receive notification of the referendum, nor were informational mailers sent out.


"They need that education component, it's vital for anything to have validity in government," said Raymond G. Cook, a tribal member. "There's supposed to be three meetings and radio talk shows and ads. I didn't see anything or hear anything and there was no information sent in the mail."


There was only one talk show on the Akwesasne radio station 97.3 FM CKON, where usually there are several. There were, however, three meetings in the tribal community building, as is required under the ordinance, tribal members said.


"Obviously we made a mistake," Chief James W. Ransom said. "I don't think we did a very good job in educating the community. We certainly didn't give enough information."


Usually, referendums are held at the same time as the tribe's general elections. Winter votes get lower turnout and are easier for factions to defeat, according to Mr. White.


"It's amazing to me that this question was even asked," said Lorraine White, a lawyer and former chief, who is no relation to Mr. White. "It provides more questions than it does answers. Why did we play into the hands of a small faction that doesn't want this to happen? I think we jeopardized our reputation and our credibility."


Before the Bush administration policy, the tribe had the support of then-Governor Eliot L. Spitzer, area Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey, D-Saugerties, and local governments in Sullivan County.


The tribe is receiving good indications that the Obama administration will reverse the so-called Kempthorne Policy in the near future, according to Mr. Ransom. It is because of the possible change in policy that the tribal council decided to hold the vote now, he said.


"Since I was elected in 2003, it would come up periodically. The tribe had a referendum for on-reservation gaming but never had one for off-reservation gaming," he said. "As a tribe, we need to position ourselves to take advantage (of a possible policy reversal). It was important to have this vote sooner rather than later."


The tribe will reschedule the referendum, likely for sometime in January, though no date has been set yet.

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