Gold Rush Town Is at Odds Over Casino Plan
Before neighbor turned against neighbor, before the mayor made the front page in jailhouse shackles, before the blustery talk of wells running dry and the town’s moral fiber blowing away, this was just another pipsqueak of a place embraced by the golden folds of the Sierra foothills.
Then came a proposal for an Indian casino.
The Ione Band of Miwok Indians figured it was time it tapped into the gambling riches being mined by other California tribes. So a year ago, the band announced plans for a sprawling 2,000-slot casino straddling the doorstep of Plymouth, population 950.
Nothing in town has been quite the same since.
Residents railed against the casino. When the City Council signed an agreement with the tribe, outraged Plymouth citizens launched a recall. Anti-casino signs sprouted along California 49, the winding link through this historic Gold Rush territory.
Nearby towns also protested. Lawsuits followed. Meanwhile, the prime target of the Plymouth recall, Mayor Darlene Scanlon, landed in jail after a domestic dispute with her estranged husband on charges that she claimed were trumped up by casino politics.
The Ione Band had plenty of squabbles of its own. The casino deal spotlighted a decade-long fight over tribal leadership. An outcast faction laid bare its claims that the Ione had been hijacked by impostors, including several officials at the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Sacramento office. The FBI and the Department of Interior’s inspector general launched investigations.
All this comes in a county of 36,000 that has plenty of experience with Indian gambling.
Amador County is home to Jackson Rancheria Casino & Hotel, a cavernous Native American resort that is the county’s biggest employer and its most troublesome crime spot, accounting for more than a quarter of all felony arrests. A third tribal casino is planned near Amador County’s western edge.
“This county can’t handle it,” said Russell Evitt, an 81-year-old former county supervisor who lives near Jackson Rancheria. “The traffic, the accidents, the arrests. It’s all just a drain.”
Plymouth’s fight is hardly unusual as communities throughout California tussle with tribes over casinos. In Sacramento, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and several of the state’s biggest casino tribes are negotiating to tap more Indian money for the state’s shrunken coffers in exchange for casino concessions. Meanwhile, two competing ballot measures are heading toward a November showdown that could either undermine the tribes’ slot-machine monopoly or cement their place as California’s gambling kingpins.
The Ione want a piece of the action. With more than 600 members scattered throughout the region, the tribe and its leaders have no reservation to call home. A year ago, they launched their effort to develop a $120-million casino and 250-room hotel on more than 200 acres at Plymouth’s edge.
“It’s an issue of the tribe being self-reliant,” said Matt Franklin, Ione Band chairman. “Our elders are saying, ‘Hey, we want to benefit from Indian gaming too.’ ”
Hoping to sweeten the deal, the tribe and its backers -- a small group of investors with past ties to a couple of Indian casinos in Wisconsin -- proposed paying the town $80 million over 20 years to offset any municipal problems.
That’s big money anywhere, but really big money in Plymouth. For years, the town has stumbled along on an annual budget of about $600,000.
Prospects for growth and more tax dollars have been hamstrung by a building moratorium necessitated by an unreliable water source. Like an 1860s outpost, Plymouth survives on well water and an antique earthen ditch dating to the Gold Rush.
Locals groused that the casino, which also would tap the area’s groundwater, could drain the town dry. Despite tribal assurances that no such thing would be allowed, “people are concerned,” said Butch Cranford, a casino opponent. “If your property doesn’t have any water, it doesn’t matter what’s on it. It’s worthless.”
Others worried the casino would undermine the community’s family-oriented tradition. They mentioned urban-style crime, traffic jams, drunk drivers. “The tribe doesn’t live here,” said Elida Malick, a recall booster. “They’re here to make money -- lots of it. And this little town isn’t equipped to handle what could be coming.”
Mayor Scanlon and the council majority heard those concerns but saw that nearby communities had fought casinos and lost. Plymouth, they reasoned, couldn’t beat the Ione Band.
“We didn’t have the money to fight it,” said Scanlon, a sixth-generation Plymouth resident. “So why not negotiate?”
Despite a city survey that found seven of 10 residents in opposition, Scanlon and her allies approved a municipal service agreement with the tribe. And Plymouth, though hardly immune to small-town controversies, was torn asunder in a way folks had never seen before.
Councilman Gary Colburn, a casino supporter, and his brother, an opponent, are prime examples. When a “No Casino” sign rose on a shared parcel of family property, the councilman took a chain saw and cut it down.
“There’s no middle here. You’re either for the casino or against it,” said Jim Glassel, owner of a market next to the proposed casino site. “We’ve got this little burg of a town, and it’s kind of become this soap opera.”
Such analogies took root in late March with the he-said, she-said scandal of Scanlon’s arrest.
By all accounts, it started with a night of fighting between the mayor and her estranged husband, Bryan Scanlon. The next morning, they wrangled anew over the recall, then just six weeks away.
Bryan Scanlon said his wife of two years tossed a sack of shoes, then pushed him over a metal plant stand. The mayor countered that she didn’t do a thing.
Whatever the truth, the mayor was jailed soon after sheriff’s deputies arrived. She stayed there for 72 hours and was brought into court in a white-and-orange-striped jailhouse jumpsuit, her hands shackled to her waist.
Facing five domestic-violence charges carrying up to three years in jail, the mayor hired Robert Schell, a firebrand defense attorney formerly of Los Angeles. Schell, who has a reputation as a thorn in the side of Amador County prosecutors, quickly went on the offensive, saying the district attorney’s office was engaged in a political prosecution.
“I think they’re heavily influenced by the grant money they receive from the Jackson Rancheria Casino for prosecutions,” Schell said. “They’re trying to undermine supporters of a potential rival casino.”
Dist. Atty. Todd Riebe called Schell’s claims “absolutely ludicrous. That’s crazy talk, is what it is, even in defense of a client. This prosecution had nothing to do with the casino.”
If anything, Riebe said, the gambling palace has cost the county plenty in law enforcement, courts, prosecutions and public defense.
Supervisor Mario Biagi agreed, saying the county -- which has sued Plymouth to try to reverse the tribal agreement -- is dead set against any more casinos. “The cumulative effect of three Indian casinos in our small county,” he said, “would be disastrous.”
As Scanlon awaited trial, recall day arrived May 4. By votes of more than 60%, Plymouth’s electorate booted Scanlon, Councilman Colburn and Vice Mayor Rich Martin from office. Their replacements included Malick and other casino foes.
Despite that setback, the Ione Band is pressing ahead. But casino opponents say a big question remains.
“Just really who is in charge of the tribe?” asked newly elected Councilwoman Pat Shackleton, a casino opponent. “To me, that has to be settled before you deal with anything.”
To the Bureau of Indian Affairs, there is no dispute: Tribal Chairman Franklin and other Ione Band board members are the leaders. But to Nicolas and Joan Villa, that is a fiction.
The Villas have been fighting for control of the Ione Band for years. In the late 1960s, Nick Villa returned from military service and helped launch the tribe’s efforts to earn renewed federal status. For many years he was chief.
But in the mid-1990s, shortly after the tribe’s federal recognition was reaffirmed, Villa was ousted. Meanwhile, the tribe’s membership, which the Villas say had numbered about 70, began expanding dramatically, topping 600 this year. Villa said the new members came largely from defunct tribes in surrounding counties.
The Villas argued it was nothing short of a coup, pointing to several local BIA officials with ties to the Ione Band. They say those officials, with several relatives now in the tribe, influenced decisions affecting control of the Ione -- and hence its casino future.
“Our tribe was hijacked,” said Joan Villa. “The new members are impostors.”
The couple acknowledge that they, too, want the tribe to own a casino but hope to see it built elsewhere. They cultivated ties with key congressmen, including Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who earlier this year pushed for federal investigations.
Officials with the FBI and the Interior Department’s inspector general’s office say the probes are still unresolved, though one insider said no evidence of wrongdoing has been found by any of the local BIA officials.
Scanlon, meanwhile, went on trial in late May at the Amador County Courthouse. After two days of often-raucous testimony, prosecutors withdrew most of the charges, and the jury found her guilty of a single count of resisting arrest. Scanlon was sentenced to a dozen days in a charity work program.
“This has pitted brother against brother, wife against husband. The casino has split this town,” Scanlon said. “The funny thing is, I still think some good could come out of it.”