Wampanoag Tribe affirms earlier vote on Vineyard casino

The tribe voted to use the community center for a boutique casino. — Photo by Steve Myrick

At a general membership meeting on Sunday, members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) affirmed a May 6 vote to use their long unfinished community center for Class II gaming.

The unofficial vote tally was 26-17 in favor with eight abstentions, according to one source who asked not to be identified due to the charged atmosphere surrounding gaming in town. The May 6 vote was 21-10 with seven abstentions.

Attendance at the meeting held in the tribal administration building in Aquinnah was only a fraction of the tribe’s more than 1,100 members.

Once again, the vote and the debate reflected a strong split between tribal members who live on Martha’s Vineyard and members from the New Bedford area, according to one informed source who spoke about the meeting but asked not to be identified due to the tribal leadership’s penchant for secrecy.

Class II gaming encompasses high stakes bingo, poker, pull-tab cards and associated electronic games that do not require coin slots. Unlike class III gaming, which encompasses all types of gaming and requires a tribe-state agreement, tribes may regulate Class II gaming on their own lands without state authority, as long as the state in which the tribe is located permits that type of gaming.

According to one attendee at the May 6 meeting, Kevin Dwyer, a principal in KMD Consulting services of California, the tribe’s current casino backers, said the community center could be turned into a “boutique casino” that could accommodate more than 500 coinless-slot machines, with buses arriving every 45 minutes.

Aquinnah selectmen have said they would oppose any effort to develop a casino in the Island’s smallest town. Town counsel Ron Rappaport has said the Wampanoag Tribal Council of Gay Head Inc. cannot legally operate a gaming casino in Aquinnah based on the terms of the Settlement Act.

In an email reply to a request for comment from The Times, tribe chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said, about the May 6 vote, that the tribe discussed many options, “including a boutique, high end/exclusive facility,” as part of a scoping and idea vetting process.

She said the tribe is not unmindful of town concerns. “As a mitigation to the potential of increased traffic, the tribe will be considering providing shuttles to minimize traffic concerns and to provide more employment opportunities for drivers, dispatch, mechanics, fuel providers and detailers,” she said.

Ms. Andrews-Maltais said the ratio of Island and off-Island meeting attendees was consistent with the membership’s composition. She dismissed the notion of a split.

“Every tribal member regardless of where they reside owns the Tribal Lands in common. No one has any more decision making authority, ownership, or rights to that land than anyone else,” she said. “And the vote was anything but on-Island versus off-Island.”

She said only 17 tribal members were against the project overall, mainly town residents not residents of tribal housing. “Except for one housing resident, it was pretty much an equal amount of town, Island and mainland members comprising that number, again consistent with the tribal makeup. Some were always against gaming even from back in the initial days in the 1990s. And a few are simply against anything my administration has tried to accomplish,” she said.

“In contrast there were twenty four tribal members who were vocally supportive of the project, and the eight abstentions clearly were not against it. The abstentions are keeping an open mind and allowed the will of the people to prevail.”

Ms. Andrews-Maltais said she has had the opportunity to speak with residents of the tribal housing community and would be holding “listening sessions” in the upcoming weeks. “Overall, the tribal membership is very supportive and like any other government we are committed to providing opportunities for employment and necessary services to our tribal members,” she said.

The steel frame for the as yet unfinished and unused building where the tribe would house a Class II gaming facility was erected in the summer of 2004 by Air Force reservists as part of a civil engineering training exercise.

Class II gaming could provide a fallback position for the Aquinnah tribe, as it asserts its rights to develop a mainland casino under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The Aquinnah tribe and its team are pressing ahead with plans to win the support of residents in the towns of Lakeville and Freetown for a casino on land straddling the two towns.

On Tuesday night, the tribe presented plans for a $167 million casino complex to more than 500 area residents at the packed Apponequet High School auditorium. The presentation was short on details, according to a report in the Boston Globe.

Freetown has scheduled a nonbinding referendum on the plan for May 29. The Lakeville vote is June 2.