Bill seeks closed-door meetings for gambling commission

James May
5/25/05

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - A bill already working its way through the California
Legislature seeks to allow the state Gambling Control Commission the right
to conduct some of its business behind closed doors.

Senate Bill 919, which comfortably passed the state Senate by a 30 - 2
margin May 2, seeks to allow an exemption of some of the open meeting rules
required under state law. Supporters of the bill say that it would allow
commissioners access to more information to better inform them for
decisions.

"Our intent was to give the commission the tools that they needed to better
do their jobs," said Peter DeMarco, communications director for Sen. Dave
Cox, R-Fair Oaks, who sponsored the bill.

DeMarco contended that the bill is necessary so the commission can address
certain issues that are normally covered by privacy laws, as well as the
gaming compacts tribes sign with the state that prohibit certain public
disclosures.

Among the items prohibited in public discussions are trade secrets and
financial and personnel information.

DeMarco claimed that when commissioners need information regarding specific
details that fall in one of the prohibited fields, they cannot legally ask
during a public meeting - and there is no alternative arena for them to do
so.

As an example, DeMarco said problems could arise when the commission
exercises its authority to make personnel decisions at the state's card
clubs, which they oversee, or advisory recommendations to tribal gaming
operations. In either case, DeMarco claimed the commission cannot request
more personnel information at a public meeting because of the existing
laws.

The commission itself approached Cox and asked him to sponsor the
legislation. DeMarco insisted that Cox only agreed to sponsor it if it did
not limit the public's right-to-know about the commission's ultimate
actions.

Additionally, DeMarco said this would not be the first time there have been
exemptions to open meetings. Among current exemptions are the state Air
Resources Board and the Board of Education.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office confirmed that he supports the bill: if
it passes the state Legislature, barring any major changes, he will likely
sign it into law.

Some, however, are concerned about the bill's potential effect on
governmental processes.

Although press reports indicated that some of the larger gaming tribes
support the bill (without naming specific tribes), the California Nations
Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA) - the main lobbying group - opposes the
bill in its current form.

"We're concerned about the privacy matter and how it will affect the public
forum," said Anthony Miranda, chairman of CNIGA. However, Miranda added
that CNIGA was working with Cox's office regarding changes to the bill.

"This is a law that basically would create an exception in our public
records and public meetings law ... We have concerns about any legislation
that would close off meetings to the public," countered Peter Scheer,
executive director for the California First Amendment Coalition.

Scheer maintained that, if passed, the bill would combine with what he
terms "overly secretive" gaming compacts to make regulation of Indian
gaming one of the least transparent government functions in the state.

Specifically, Scheer said the compacts have made it virtually impossible
for even tribal members to access, for example, their own government's
financial records.

"It's strange that [tribal members] can know more about the finances of,
say, Kraft Foods than their own tribal casino - which is essentially the
gross national product of that tribe, which is a sovereign entity," said
Scheer.

In fact, Scheer took the thought a step further and advocated that tribal
members demand more transparency from their own governments on everything
from tribal business to disenrollments in order to make sure the process
holds up to public scrutiny.

Scheer also contended that given gaming tribes' increasingly prominent role
in state politics, they ought to be as open and public as other governments
within the states, such as counties and municipalities, which have to
conduct their business in an open manner.

Additionally, Scheer said that closed meetings create at least the aura of
secrecy and therefore are not in the public's best interest.

The panel currently has four commissioners who are appointed by the
governor and oversee not only tribal gaming operations, but also the
state's card clubs.

In the past, tribes have seen the commission as a lightening rod for
controversy as tribes often squared off with the commission over several
issues.

The Commission was also in the news recently as Schwarzengger sought to
double its staff, a proposal he has since scaled back considerably.

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