Not content to wait for U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV to decide if the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act trumps the settlement that all parties signed in good faith 32 years ago, and which has hobbled their efforts to reap gaming gold, the leaders of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) revealed that they have taken steps to forge ahead with plans to develop a long-unbuilt community center into a bingo parlor.
It is hard to know if the tribe intends to press ahead with plans to place rows and rows of blinking electronic bingo devices in its living room and invite gamblers in, or if this is some type of bluff designed to advance mainland aspirations.
Whatever the hard-to-fathom strategic purpose, the tribal leadership has certainly proceeded in a clumsy fashion.
The tribe has every right to test the legal limits of the settlement act in the face of significant changes to the state’s gaming landscape. Perhaps the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act does supersede the settlement act. That is for the lawyers to argue, and for a judge — or the nation’s highest court — to decide.
And it is understandable that members of the Wampanoag tribe who live on the mainland and formed the voting bloc in favor of turning the community center into a gaming hall might not give a hoot about what happens in the town of Aquinnah, as long as there is money to be made.
What is not understandable or acceptable is the tribal leadership’s indifference to its neighbors, the residents of Aquinnah, and the Martha’s Vineyard community at large.
The first inkling residents had that the tribe planned to proceed with plans for a gaming hall came in a news report published last week in the Vineyard Gazette, which reported that the tribe placed an online classified ad seeking licensed electricians and helpers for a 10-plus-week casino project, an ad it withdrew after two days.
Much was revealed in a deposition given last week in connection with the case now before Judge Saylor. Tribal Chairman Tobias Vanderhoop told Aquinnah Town Counsel Ron Rappaport that the tribe did not notify the town about this change of use, that the tribe would not permit town inspections, and that the tribe has retained a contractor and an architect. Mr. Vanderhoop said that the tribe had transferred control of the building to its gaming corporation for use as a casino, and has the authority to proceed under the IGRA.
Common courtesy demanded that Mr. Vanderhoop meet with the Aquinnah board of selectmen, two of whom are members of the tribe, and let them know that the tribe was not content to wait for the judge and would move forward with its plans. Doing so would not have changed the tribe or the town’s course of action, but would have been consistent with the pattern of cooperation and communication evidenced in other matters.
In an interview with The Times, Mr. Vanderhoop bobbed and weaved when asked for his personal view on the question of gaming.
“It is my responsibility as the elected chairman of the tribe to represent the interests of all the tribal citizens. My point of view is that I stand with the actions that the membership takes, and I carry out my duty.”
Mr. Vanderhoop is correct that he has a responsibility to carry out the will of the tribal membership. But as a leader, he also has an obligation to speak out when he thinks the tribe is moving in the wrong direction. At the moment, it is hard to discern what he thinks.
Chairman Vanderhoop would have us believe that a bingo parlor will provide jobs and benefits. And what might those be? Emptying the coin boxes? Filling the concession machines? Sweeping the aisles between the rows of flashing machines? And what will be left in profits after the tribe’s financial backers take their cut?
The tribe has certainly had opportunities to generate jobs and benefit the Island economy in a manner more in keeping with the Island environment.
We find more clarity in the unequivocal statements of Julianne Vanderhoop, an Aquinnah selectman and tribal member, who understands her leadership role.
Selectman Vanderhoop said the notion of creating a gaming hall in the Island’s smallest town is “far-fetched.”
The selectmen are united. They have issued a cease-and-desist order and appear willing to follow up, should the tribe ignore the order. Hopefully, that will not be necessary.