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 Gambling Meeting's Closing Criticized

Saturday, December 19, 1998

Arbitrators Cite 'Informality' As Reason for Cutting Access

By Wren Propp
Journal Capitol Bureau

SANTA FE -- Arbitrators studying a gambling revenue dispute between the state and three Indian tribes with casinos closed a preliminary conference on the issue to the public and the press.  The move drew criticism from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, a watchdog group, and the New Mexico Press Association. The arbitrators -- one representing the state, one representing the Indian tribes and a third serving as a neutral party -- are looking at a dispute initially raised by the Mescalero Apache tribe. The tribe, citing concerns with its 1997 state compact, has refused to pay regulatory fees and 16 percent of the net win from its casino's electronic games. Tribal officials asked for arbitration earlier this year.

Two other tribes with casinos, Acoma and Taos pueblos, recently joined the arbitration. In their order released Friday, the arbitrators said they wished to "maintain the informality of this preliminary scheduling conference. Attendance, therefore, will be restricted to the parties and their representatives."

The order also says: "The public or private nature of subsequent proceedings in this arbitration will be discussed with the parties at the Jan. 6 conference."

The conference is scheduled for 10 a.m. Jan. 6 in Mescalero at the Mescalero Inn, which is owned by the southern New Mexico tribe. Janice McCrary, chairwoman of the state Gaming Control Board, said in a telephone interview Friday that the conference might be delayed until Jan. 20 to allow Acoma and Taos pueblos to submit documents on their part in the arbitration. McCrary said the state's position has been to open all the arbitration proceedings to the public and the press. However, since the preliminary conference is about procedural and scheduling issues, it can be closed without harming the public's interest, McCrary said.

The state's arbitrator, Fred Ragsdale, has been instructed about the state position on keeping the arbitrators' proceedings open to the public and is expected to follow it, she said.

The Mescalero Apache Tribe has asked that all arbitration proceedings be closed to the public. Bob Johnson, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said Friday that none of the arbitrators' meetings should be closed. "This excuse they want to maintain the informality of the conference just doesn't ring true," Johnson said. "That's the way things are done in dictatorships. The good ol' boys get together and decide what to do and that's what the public is stuck with."

Pat Rogers, a lobbyist for the New Mexico Press Association, said the order is confusing at a time the public's interest in clarity is most important. "This is not a good way to begin," Rogers said in a telephone interview. "This is throwing gasoline on the fire."

Copyright 1997, 1998 Albuquerque Journal