Glendale, tribe will open talks on casino
Negotiations will begin between the Tohono O'odham Nation and Glendale — two parties long divided by a bitter silence, lawsuits and legislation.
The Glendale City Council remains officially opposed to the tribe's plans to build a casino near its sports and entertainment district, but the council majority moved to oppose federal legislation that would block the casino and directed staff to start talks with the tribe.
In the coming weeks, the council will vote whether to formally oppose Arizona Rep. Trent Franks' bill that would forbid more casinos in metro Phoenix until 2027.
The southern Arizona-based tribe has slogged through a storm of opposition from the city, the state and other Arizona tribes since leaders announced plans in 2009 to land reservation territory on a county island near Glendale and build a casino resort.
The state, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and the Gila River Indian Community argue that the Tohono O'odham Nation's casino plans break a state gaming compact that implicitly limits the number of casinos in metro Phoenix. A federal judge ruled the compact does not contain a prohibition, but opponents appealed.
Glendale argues that the U.S. Department of the Interior should not grant the tribe reservation status on land surrounded by city limits. The department is reviewing its initial approval, by request of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and will release its updated decision soon.
Glendale's shifting tone is largely symbolic at this point, as many other hurdles block the Tohono O'odham's plans, and the two opposing tribes have attested they will continue to wage legal war, with or without Glendale's help.
"I'm not going to stand back, I'm not going to sit down, and I'm certainly not going to lay down," said Diane Enos, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said he isn't as concerned about the other barriers, as the courts have consistently ruled in the tribe's favor. The opportunity to negotiate with Glendale, he said, moves the tribe closer to its goal.
Tohono O'odham leaders have had numerous meetings with Glendale management since the council set staff on a "fact-finding mission" in October to determine the impact a casino resort would have on city resources.
The move broke a more than four-year silence between the tribe and city.
City leaders have long argued the tribe's plans would burden police and firefighters and draw business away from the Westgate Entertainment District and other local businesses.
Council members Norma Alvarez, Ian Hugh, Sam Chavira and Gary Sherwood decided it was time to consider cutting a deal, but Mayor Jerry Weiers and Council members Yvonne Knaack and Manny Martinez disagreed.
The matter is one for the courts to resolve, Knaack said.
The city has spent about $3.5 million on lawsuits against the Tohono O'odham Nation.
"I don't want to waste that $3 million," Knaack said. "If we change our minds now, that's like throwing that $3 million out the window for no reason."
Sherwood, however, said the casino could be a moneymaker for the city. And, once the council sees what type of deal the city could strike, it could decide whether to lift its official opposition, he said.
He said he remains opposed to the casino, but is willing to do business with the Tohono O'odham Nation if the city could glean some revenue and the tribe were to waive its sovereign immunity — protection against getting sued.
All Native American tribes are immune to lawsuits except for those brought by the federal government or if Congress passes a law allowing certain suits.
In fact, opponents argue that the tribe won its case in federal court merely because it would not waive sovereign immunity.
Norris said he would negotiate waiving immunity.
Weiers has cautioned that opening talks with the Tohono O'odham Nation could strain relationships with the other two tribes, which have given the city numerous grants.
The most recent offering, from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, helped Glendale buy a firetruck.
"This is the kind of thing that strains a relationship," he said.
Weiers called the position of opposing the casino while opposing Franks' bill a perplexing one.
"We live by majority vote. Sometimes that sucks, sometimes it doesn't," he said.