Something’s up relative to the long-delayed action by the Little Rock Port Authority on a memorandum of understanding with the Quapaw Tribe about use of its land near the port.
As I reported earlier this month, questions from unidentified people caused a delay in consideration of the memorandum of understanding to which the tribe has agreed. From the beginning, official Little Rock — meaning the business establishment as centered at the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and as reflected by politicians beholden to them, such as Mayor Mark Stodola and County Judge Barry Hyde — have wanted to put land-use restrictions on the Quapaw that haven’t been sought from other nearby landowners.
These political forces want to lock the tribe into an ironclad agreement that would prevent the tribe from private commercial investments such as it has made in Oklahoma — casino, hotel and related tourist services. Nominally, those fighting the tribe say they want to protect industrial uses at the port from possible interference. But several officials have made clear they fear the tribe might someday get in the casino business. In the agreement, the tribe says it has no plans to build a casino on what is now primarily agricultural land. The land contains important Indian archaeological sites from the Quapaws’ residency in Arkansas before their forced removal.
The memorandum of understanding was not on the board agenda today. But I’ve been told that a motion to table the memorandum may come up. It’s a familiar strategy. Last night, for example, a tabling motion was used (by apparent pre-arrangement on the part of a City Board majority) to essentially kill a proposal before the Little Rock City Board asking for more study of the Highway Department– and Chamber of Commerce-preferred plan for expanding Interstate 30 downtown. A source told me to ask about a motion to table the Port memorandum from Authority board member Frank Scott, a Little Rock banker who, coincidentally, is a state highway commissioner and advocate of the freeway widening. I haven’t confirmed that, but have questions out to those in the meeting.
Port Director Bryan Day so far has said by e-mail that the meeting is proceeding. He hasn’t answered specific questions about actions.
Should the agreement with the tribe get scuttled it won’t paint an attractive picture for those interested in investing in Little Rock or the people who supposedly work to develop the city. The picture: A group with land zoned at the lowest classification — and thus usable for anything — is being made to agree to onerous development limitations by local officials. And, to boot, it’s an Indian tribe being pressured into a peace treaty. Or: Somebody sticks it to Indians again.
When I asked Day about the holdup several weeks ago, this is as much as I could get about the objections, though he’d name no objectors by name:
There have been some questions from the business community; none of them have been in writing. The questions include things like: In reality, how legally binding is the agreement; what potential impact will the agreement have on the Port and our ability to make our own decisions moving forward; is the agreement in conflict with Federal or State law (pertaining to artifacts and historical human remains), etc. I cannot speak to the “openness” of “officials” (because I am not sure who you are referencing) – I can tell you that the Port is just trying to resolve any and all unanswered questions.
UPDATE: According to notes taken by someone in the meeting the action went beyond tabling:
Port Board member Jon Wickliffe, a drug salesman, made the motion that the Board not enter a land use agreement as long as there was an action regarding land use at the local, state or federal level. The tribe is currently seeking federal tribal status for the land.
Such a a restriction as that adopted by the Board today could hamper agreements with any business seeking to do business there in the future, but Wickliffe reportedly said the policy could be rescinded as needed.
I think it safe to assume this will be construed as a screw job of the tribe and related to objections to gambling, even though the tribe’s memorandum took that off the table. Several advocates for the tribe have noted the Little Rock Chamber’s opposition and the support the chamber gets in sponsorship from Oaklawn Racing and Gaming, which operates a casino at its Hot Springs racetrack.
Also: My updater says Scott wasn’t associated with the roadblock and has been willing to work with the tribe. The delaying motion I heard about might have been an effort to keep the memorandum alive. Today’s action killed it.
UPDATE II: I got Bryan Day for a fuller discussion. 1) The matter was not on the agenda. 2) Scott DID introduce a motion to delay consideration of the memorandum, at least until March, to give Board staff time for completing studies of future land acquisitions and resolving some questions about land use. The motion got a second from Dexter Doyne,, but failed. 3) Wickliffe then made the motion to kill the memorandum by saying the Board would NEVER enter into a memorandum of understanding with a land owner that has an application pending before any local, satte or federal entity regarding change of land use or governance. In response to a question, Day said he told the board that he could envision problems with blanket prohibitions. Certainly, if the prohibition is rescinded in the future, it would be possible for somebody like the tribe to raise an argument of discrimination. Day said there were legitimate concerns about commercial uses of tribal property amid an industrial port, but he also conceded there’s little restriction on the tribal and other land in the industrial zone. And he acknowledged that some other agendas had gotten entwined in the port’s effort to optimize its development.
Wickliffe’s motion passed 4-2, with Board Chair Christ Matthews abstaining. His motion was joined by Joe Bailey, Greg Joslin and Melissa Hendricks. Scott and Doyne opposed the motion. In a telephone conversation later, Scott said he was committed to the memorandum and saw his proposal as a way to successfully work to its adoption.
But, in the end, the tribe’s MOU is dead. The tribe was not present to speak on the issue because it had not been expected to come up for another month. This only serves to support those who believe the fix has been in against the Indians from the start.
The tribe is capable of defending itself — see a lawsuit it filed against Kansas yesterday for refusing to negotiate in good faith.