ChicoER Editorial: County’s legal bill in losing fight tops $600,000 8.3.2016

By: Krishna Minter | August 04 2016

Butte County supervisors have decided to spend $600,000 — and counting — on a losing battle, but they’ve yet to have an open, public discussion justifying the expenditure. It’s time for the supervisors to show a little accountability to taxpayers and explain themselves.

Last week the supervisors voted 3-2 to continue to appeal their losing battle in the courts. Supervisors Doug Teeter, Steve Lambert and Bill Connelly want to prevent the Mechoopda Tribe from building a casino south of Chico off Highway 149.

After the county lost another round in federal court last month, this newspaper sent a California Public Records Act request to the county asking how much it has spent on outside counsel, consultants and other expenses in the legal battle that started in 2004.

The last we had heard, in 2010, the total was $391,000.

In response to our request, the county said the total is now $601,468.

And counting.

The decision to keep throwing money down that rabbit hole, though, should have been made in open session. Tell voters why the expense is justified. Instead, the supervisors held their deliberations in closed session. Legally, they are allowed to do so. Ethically, though, they owe taxpayers an explanation.

Maureen Kirk and Larry Wahl voted to end it. They represent the Chico area, and the Mechoopda Tribe is based in Chico.

Wahl doesn’t mind sharing his rationale for his vote to drop the legal challenges.

“The Mechoopda have been treated so poorly in this county for so many years, and my knowledge goes back to when I was a kid, when they were booted out of their property unceremoniously, to my way of thinking,” said Wahl. “Their treatment has been next to criminal, if not criminal.”

The county first tried the tactic of hiring a professor to write a report saying the Mechoopda are not really a tribe. That was not only incorrect, but it was offensive. Relations have gone downhill from there.

It looks as if three supervisors are protecting the gambling franchise of two tribes at the expense of a potential competitor.

Somehow we just can’t see the county supervisors paying $600,000 on behalf of, say, Raley’s and Food Maxx to keep a super Wal-Mart out of town, or paying for a legal challenge to keep a new restaurant, clothing store or tire shop from building here. We can’t picture them using the rationale, like they have with the Indian casinos, that two of anything is “enough” and all others should be banned. This is a conservative board, after all, one that values and encourages free enterprise.

Why the newly protectionist tendencies? Both Feather Falls and Gold Country are good corporate citizens — helpful, cooperative and giving on local government matters. Still, approval of Indian casinos was enacted by voters. The county didn’t fight the first two. It can’t start throwing taxpayer money at trying to keep others out now. Like it or not, the free market will decide how many is “enough.”

Wahl argues the same thing.

“We shouldn’t be in the position of picking winners and losers and stifling free enterprise, which is what this is,” Wahl said. “If they (the Mechoopda) pick that piece of property, we should work through the process and discuss our concerns with them.”

And all of that, like the decision to appeal or not appeal, should be done in open session where supervisors can explain themselves.