The Medford City Council plans to send a letter to federal officials expressing concern over a proposal by the Coquille Indian Tribe to build a local casino, but the council on Thursday stopped short of outright opposition to the project.
Councilwoman Karen Blair said during Thursday's council meeting that based on her analysis, the city needs to take a position opposing the casino almost immediately to establish firm legal standing with federal agencies.
"Please formally oppose the Coquilles' action," she said.
Other council members disagreed with opposing the project on such quick notice, preferring to express concerns and reservations after staff members analyze the impacts on Medford.
The Coquille Indian Tribe purchased Kim's Restaurant and Roxy Ann Lanes along South Pacific Highway in Medford. The tribe will attempt to place the property in a U.S. government trust that starts a process that could lead to reservation status.
Under the 1989 federal restoration act, the Coquille tribal service area includes Coos, Curry, Douglas, Jackson and Lane counties.
The council's letter would be sent by Sept. 26 to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Coquille tribe and others.
Blair expressed disappointment after the meeting that the county hadn't decided to oppose the project. She said that based on conversations with tribes that it was important to stake out opposition at an early stage to assure legal standing in the process to create reservation land. After review, the city could still change its mind and support the idea, she said.
The Cow Creek Umpqua Tribe that runs Seven Feathers Casino in Canyonville has vowed to block what it sees as an aggressive and "outrageous" attempt by the Coquille Indian Tribe to build a competing casino in Medford.
An executive order signed by Gov. John Kitzhaber during his previous administration created a framework with the understanding that each tribe in the state would be allowed one casino.
The Coquille tribe's proposal is for a smaller-scale casino that wouldn't have the gambling options available at its The Mill Casino in North Bend or at Seven Feathers. However, a Medford casino would compete for market share with Seven Feathers, according to the Cow Creek Umpqua Tribe.
Blair said she'd received a bureaucratic runaround in her efforts to get more information from federal officials, including Rep. Greg Walden's office, which she said didn't return her call.
She said once land is declared part of a reservation, it is very difficult for outside agencies such as the city to have any say in what happens on that land.
"It's like putting a small country in the city of Medford," she said.
Councilman Chris Corcoran said he didn't want to take part in any kind of "knee-jerk" reaction by opposing the reservation proposal.
Councilman Bob Strosser said he had concerns about the casino idea, but thought there was enough time for the city to gather all the information needed before passing judgment on the project.
Strosser and other council members agreed to draft a letter expressing "concern" rather than opposition.
Councilman John Michaels said the city should be proactive in dealing with the Coquille proposal.
"We as a council set the tone here, and we need to set the tone as soon as possible," he said.
Councilman Eli Matthews voiced support for Blair's calls for a letter in opposition.
"This is a huge issue," he said. "It is in my ward."
John Huttl, attorney for the city, said sending a letter of concern rather than a letter of opposition should establish the city's legal standing into the future, according to his review of federal law.
City officials's concerns about the Coquille proposal include a lack of outreach from the tribe before recent news accounts revealed the scope of the project, and the effects of a casino on roads, the fire and police departments and other city services.
City staff has already been compiling information about the possible effects on services.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.