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.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

On Stewardship

Recently I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what this word means, since I’ve heard it brought up in several contexts over the past year or so. Repeatedly, it has been invoked by those who support the building of a Casino on reservation land in Middleboro. They believe that the casino will be a good thing for the local economy, in large measure because the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe are “good stewards.”

This begs the question, what does stewardship mean?
Per Merriam Webster’s dictionary online, the word dates from the 15th century, and has two main meanings:
1. The office, duties, and obligations of a steward.
2. The conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care, stewardship of our natural resources.

Most people, when they invoke stewardship in support of the casino, have definition #2 in mind. One issue I have with the use of the idea of stewardship in support of the casino enterprise is that stewardship appears to me to be on the endangered species list in the current ethical environment. We are becoming increasingly unable to see, and plan, long term. We are fixated on the short term solution for the immediate crisis; on achieving the short term gain no matter what its long-term cost. We unfailingly believe that, once we’ve got ours (or have arranged to get it), the future will take care of itself.

Traditionally, in the corporate world, management embodied the concept of stewardship. Although the latest bottom line was always important, a manager of an enterprise was also expected (if not required) to take a longer range view and insure that the enterprise would survive beyond the current fiscal year. That was a given.

That given has eroded completely. Take Enron as a case-in-point. Where was the “stewardship” of the Enron executives who willfully and knowingly colluded in fiscal mismanagement and outright fraud, leading to the destruction of the organization, and severe hardship to thousands of people whose only crime was to come in to work every day and do their jobs? When personal short-term gain came into conflict with the long-term needs and health of that corporate entity, and the long-term welfare of its rank and file employees, the “stewards” of that enterprise repeatedly chose their personal gain, and devil take the organization and it workers. The result played out in front of us in news stories about the collapse, and regular updates on the court proceedings. The employees who lost not only their jobs, but also thousands of their dollars in the collapse of the company were simply out of luck. They backed a losing horse, they shot the dice and came up craps, choose your gambling metaphor.

Only they weren’t the ones that were gambling, were they?

On the surface this may appear to have nothing to do with the proposed reservation Casino in Middleboro, but please bear with me. Consider the recent agreement between the Town of Mashpee and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in this context. The Tribe has promised not to seek any private or town-owned land, and promises not to build a class II or class III casino in Mashpee. The Tribe did retain the right to offer bingo in Mashpee at the level allowed by Massachusetts law. In exchange, the town of Mashpee agreed to support of the tribe’s application to take 140 acres in Mashpee (which acres are currently not on the town’s tax rolls) into trust as a reservation, which would also (presumably) place the land beyond the jurisdiction of local zoning ordinances.

The agreement is intended to protect the Town of Mashpee from further land claims by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe as an entity (and presumably, by members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe as individuals), and from the construction of a destination resort-casino in Mashpee. Neither the residents of Mashpee, nor the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe are content to trust in each other's “good stewardship” of their relationship without the underpinning of a negotiated and (they hope) legally-binding instrument. Given the sometimes adversarial relationship between the Wampanoag Tribe and the Town of Mashpee in recent history, especially with regard to land ownership, this reluctance is understandable.

Consider also the governor’s championing of class III gambling in Massachusetts in the context of stewardship as defined above. Is it “careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care” to insert into a budget money that cannot actually be collected until several years have elapsed, to spend money on a study that will be at least a year out of date by the time the issue of commercial gambling in Massachusetts is again placed before the legislature, and to use wildly-inflated estimates of jobs and revenue in one’s projections in support of expanded gambling in Massachusetts?

Finally, consider the recent history of the Middleboro Casino proposal, the development of the Intergovernmental Agreement, and ponder the role of the Board of Selectmen as stewards of the residents of Middleboro. Res Ipsa Loquitur.

Please, let us not blindly place our faith in “stewardship.” As an ethical concept that actually motivates the actions of people in power, it is going the way of the Dodo bird, as a shield against exploitation it is a cobweb.