Town of Aquinnah seeks ‘common ground’ with tribe

Town counsel vows not to renew litigation after Supreme Court rejects petition over tribal casino.

2
Town counsel Ronald Rappaport discusses the town's position after Wednesday's executive session in Aquinnah. - Rich Saltzberg

At a hastily called meeting Wednesday, Aquinnah selectmen decided to drop any further legal action and open talks with the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), as the tribe pursues a gambling facility on tribal land.

The decision comes two days after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a petition filed by the town, the state, and the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association.

The tribe is proposing an electronic bingo hall, something that can’t be regulated by the state under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Earlier in the day Wednesday, in her first public comments since Monday’s decision, tribal council Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais told The Times she is open to cooperating with the town and the state. She even left open the door to an off-Island casino, saying she plans to reach out to Gov. Charlie Baker when she returns to Massachusetts Friday.

Selectmen met behind closed doors with town counsel Ron Rappaport for about 35 minutes Wednesday. When they emerged, Mr. Rappaport spoke on behalf of the board.

“First, you know, we want to congratulate the tribe,” he said. “They won the lawsuit on the right to game, and congratulations to them and we’ll move on to the next phase. I received today a communication from the tribe’s counsel suggesting that it would be good if I, on behalf of the town, and the tribe’s counsel — and there are two of them, Scott Crowell and Lael Echo-Hawk — that we begin the dialogue about seeing what common ground there is, because there are a lot of issues that are out there.”

Mr. Rappaport said selectmen have authorized him to meet with the tribe’s attorneys: “Hopefully we don’t have areas of disagreement, but if we do we’ll find out what those are, and then I will report back to the selectmen and we’ll take it from there.”

Asked if the town will pursue a new avenue of litigation in the face of Monday’s results, selectmen chairman Jim Newman said no.

“We’re not looking right now at lawsuits, we’re looking to see if we can reach an agreement,” Mr. Rappaport said.

The town’s position conflicts with the community association, which this week vowed to continue fighting an Island casino in an email to its members. “The legal issues aside, the AGHCA will continue to oppose a casino located in Aquinnah and will follow developments accordingly,” the email stated.

The selectmen briefly discussed an unrelated matter after Mr. Rappaport’s comment and adjourned.