For devotees of gossip columns and sensationalistic newsmagazines, there was more than enough innuendo and allegation to satisfy Monday at a legislative hearing featuring plans by the Campo Indians to put a landfill on their rural southeast San Diego County reservation.
The Indians and at least one senator were upset about the "cheap shot" insinuation that the Campos and other tribes scattered throughout California were easy dupes for well-heeled and corrupt East Coast garbage companies, eager to use the issue of American Indian sovereignty to get around strict environmental regulations for their landfills and toxic dumps.
And Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Rancho San Diego), who is at odds with the Indians, was more vocal than usual in proclaiming that "sleaze merchants" from Chicago and beyond were the secret force behind the opposition to his bill, which requires all Indian landfills to come under state regulation.
When the smoke cleared Monday evening, both sides appeared to have battled to a draw, although the Indians held the upper hand. They convinced a Senate committee to vote against the Peace bill, but the lawmaker prevailed on his colleagues to consider the issue anew at their committee meeting next week.
"The best way to deal with sleaze merchants is to put light on the process," Peace said after the hearing, explaining he asked for reconsideration although his chances look grim. "We're going to let some time go by."
At issue is Peace's bill that would force the Campo Indians and other tribes to submit to state environmental officials in planning and running their landfills, even if they are situated on sovereign American Indian lands.
Acknowledging that the provision would likely invite a U.S. Supreme Court legal challenge, Peace said the potential environmental consequences of allowing the tribes, private companies and overworked federal officials to run the hazardous operations on their own are too great for the state to ignore. Legal precedent exists for the state to step in and take charge if there is a significant "spill-over" effect expected from an Indian operation, he said.
Indians and companies negotiating with them, however, say Peace is mistaken and that his bill would violate the long-established legal precedent that has held that Indian reservations are sovereign states, accountable to only the federal government when it comes to land use and other tribal matters. Under those rules, the 200-member, poverty-stricken Campo tribe hopes to put a 600-acre waste dump on the southeastern corner of its 15,000-acre East County reservation.
But the tribe's neighbors, fearing contamination of their water supply and the environment from sloppy landfill management, are fighting the plans. The controversy earned a mention in this week's Time Magazine, and the opponents' chief advocate has been Peace, who told the Senate Appropriations Committee that he finds it "absolutely deplorable" that garbage companies from Chicago and the East Coast are trying to get around state environmental regulations by "exploiting the poverty of my constituents, who are living on Indian Reservations . . . . " Their lobbying tactics had made him "cranky," Peace said.
For the most part, however, Peace received little sympathy from the senators and from a battery of speakers--such as Campo chief Ralph Goff, who warned that the state would lose in court and have to pay the tribe hundreds of thousands of dollars for legal fees and penalties. Tribe attorney Jim West said the Campos would be asking any judge to award them $150,000 a month for any delay incurred by a court fight--a monthly sum the tribe believes it will make from the proposed landfill.
Goff emphasized that his tribe has consulted closely with state and county environmental officials and even plans to hire them as consultants to make sure the landfill is run properly. "We believe this legislation is pointed directly at our reservation, and we oppose it," he said.
The mood seemed to turn a bit sour after Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia) announced his opposition and commented that Peace had implied that the Indians were being bought off. "That maybe there's some corruption by some big Eastern companies, who are paying them (Indians) off . . . I heard that without anyone saying it," he said.
The panel voted 6 to 2 against Peace's bill, but he won reconsideration of the measure next week. Although the Indians and their supporters were buoyed by the vote, the testimony left a bitter taste in their mouths.
"What he tried to do is characterize anyone who deals with the Indians as an evil, foreign corporation," said Kenneth H. Lounsbery, Lusardi vice president and general counsel of the San Diego-based Lusardi Construction Co., which hopes to land the contract with the tribe. "Our company is a third-generation firm in San Diego County. So to raise the specter of some evil, Eastern-based manipulation is false and misleading."
Added Goff: "It was a cheap shot. . . . We aren't going to be taken in by organized crime."
Peace was undeterred, saying he will return next week with his own contingent of witnesses. He said he was unable to get them organized in time for Monday's hearing.
" My people don't have a big corporation to pay money to run them up" to Sacramento, said Peace, throwing a last verbal jab at the firms he says are behind the Indians.