Friday, April 25, 2008

We Got The Jack

Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it
George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense

The information provided below can be found on the Nemasket Forum, in posts made by several members between 2/18/08 and 2/19/08. On the surface, this may seem a useless rehashing of a past that can never be altered, but again, I beg your patience. In April 2007, events in the Middleboro casino timeline began to come to the notice of the residents of Middleboro and surrounding towns. Now, in April 2008, the search committee for the new Town Manager has narrowed the field from 12 candidates, to four finalists. Of those four, two merit close consideration and scrutiny. One finalist has alleged connections to gambling interests, and a second finalist leaves his current post as Marshfield Town Manager under a cloud: a judgment against Marshfield in a high-profile discrimination suit. Given these realities, I think it is useful to review the history of how we got to where we are, in the biggest development undertaking in Middleboro history. It is especially instructive to review the role played by the Town Manager in the process. Finally, we should try to understand the lessons to be learned from this recent history, so that we are not in fact condemned to repeat it.

In March 2007, the Town Manager requested to speak with the representatives of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, following the Tribe’s achievement of federal recognition. The Board of Selectmen agreed to have the Town Manager speak to the representatives of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. According to one BOS member, the Town Manager’s mandate was limited to exploring terms of an agreement between the tribe and the town in a hypothetical “what if” fashion. At the same time, the Board of Selectmen was to seek, and engage, expert legal help versed not only in real estate law, but also in reservation gaming, in preparation for negotiations with the tribe in earnest. That was what was supposed to happen.

However, as we all know, that is not what happened. Instead, the Town Manager and Attorney Witten negotiated actual terms with the Tribe, despite the limitations imposed by the BOS. The Town Manager was told by the BOS not to negotiate an agreement between the town and the tribe, but that is precisely what he did. Then, in April of 2007, the Town Manager proposed auctioning off the former Striar property. Yet this same plot of land had come up in the discussions in March between the Town Manager and the representatives of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, BEFORE the public auction was proposed.

I believe that we all can agree that the sale of this land before details of an agreement between the town and the tribe were worked out really weakened the town’s bargaining position. This land was “the key to the kingdom”, the board of selectmen voted unanimously on 4/9/07 to sell the land at public auction, although Adam Bond has stated that he argued for public discussion of this particular sale, and sales of town-owned land in general, during open session of the Selectmen’s meeting before taking a vote on the sale. Unfortunately, despite his efforts, a public discussion in open BOS session did not take place. Instead, the vote was taken, was unanimous in favor of selling the land, and the land was sold to the highest bidder, who happened to be acting on behalf of the financial backer who had bankrolled the tribe’s application for federal recognition. Then, after the sale of the land to the tribe’s financial backer, the town “negotiated” with the tribe, after the land was already in the hands of the tribe’s backer, and after the major compensation components of the agreement had already been worked out between the tribe and the Town Manager, acting (outside of his mandate) on behalf of the town.

Did the tribe want and need that 500+ acre parcel in Middleboro so badly that they would have agreed to provide real compensation (2% of slot revenue plus other fees) in exchange for the signatures of the Middleboro BOS on an intergovernmental agreement and in exchange for ownership of that land? We will never know. Instead, we have the 7 million, or 11 million payment (depending on who’s reading the agreement), and the payments in lieu of room tax. There is some speculation that the 7 million figure is roughly twice what the parcel would have earned in tax revenue, as commercial property.

Nocasino, one of the members of Nemasket Forum, ably articulates the frustrations several people on both sides of the issue have felt with this process:

Many residents feel we were purposely denied an opportunity to question and to research and understand the casino issue. We feel we were put into a no-win position by our elected officials without input from us. This will always bring resentment that will not be resolved until the facts are available.

Several questions still remain:

Will the real costs of hosting this facility more than offset the negotiated payments to the town?

Will every issue facing the town be viewed through the lens of the casino? The casino has become the “cowbird” issue, distracting us from considering and acting on other pressing matters.

Will the revenue stream provided by this enterprise guarantee fiscal responsibility? In my experience, increased revenue does not necessarily bring fiscal restraint. Fiscal restraint typically precedes increased revenue!

Our state representatives oppose the plan to construct this destination resort casino on reservation land, which is presently undeveloped watershed. The speaker of the house successfully opposed the governor’s casino bill and defeated legalization of class III gambling, mostly on the basis of the costs of gambling and the projected negative impacts of the expansion of gambling on the state's economy.

Until and unless class III gambling is legal in Massachusetts, a tribal gaming enterprise cannot be commercially viable, especially given the existing competition and its present expansion “arms race." Finally, more and more surrounding towns and communities, which will share the impacts but not necessarily the mitigation, are publicly voicing their opposition to this project.

So, what lessons can be taken away from this recent history? Two immediately come to my mind:

Lesson 1: How do we as a town, (or our representatives, the Board of Selectmen) outline the scope of the Town Manager’s role,and (equally if not more important) what lies beyond that scope? How do we prevent a Town Manager from exceeding that scope in the future, both in the ordinary course of town business, and in the course of extraordinary events? How do we insure that, in the future, no one individual can deny residents at large the opportunity to question, research, and understand the major issues facing them, prior to action being taken on those issues?

Lesson 2: How do we insure that the public always has the opportunity (as is its right) to discuss and consider the sale of town assets, before a vote is taken by our elected representatives, to sell such assets?

Food for thought, as we consider the finalist candidates for Town Manager.


Bellicose Bumpkin said...

Did the tribe want and need that 500+ acre parcel in Middleboro so badly that they would have agreed to provide real compensation (2% of slot revenue plus other fees)


Anonymous said...

Great blog! Keep'em coming........

Anonymous said...

As always, you have raised some provocative issues worth consideration.
Please keep blogging.

Anonymous said...

You could keep amending the motions to sell land at Town Meeting as Mr. Bond did, where such sales are not to be done without Town Meeting approval and are not subject to BOS discretion. He amended the motion raised two Town Meetings ago.

Anonymous said...

anonymous 8:32 AM, just as a point of information, the land that was auction was taken for taxes and the town treasurer can sell that land independently. I believe one of the parcels you speak of was the South Middleboro school that was constructed on donated land. The other was acquired differently. It's the method of acquisition that determines how it can be disposed of.