While the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe celebrates its new partnership with Taunton to pursue a tribal casino, the jilted town the tribe left behind is not going away quietly.
Five years ago, officials in Middleborough signed a casino deal with the Wampanoag to turn the so-called “Cranberry Capital of the World’’ into the gambling capital of Massachusetts. But the tribe later abandoned its Middleborough casino plans and moved on, briefly courting Fall River before settling down with Taunton.
Middleborough officials say the community sacrificed money and development opportunities while it waited for the tribe, and now the town wants to be compensated.
“We want to settle and we’re looking for a combination of land and money,’’ said Alfred P. Rullo Jr., chairman of the Middleborough Board of Selectmen, in an interview. Exactly how much, he would not say. But “it’s substantial.’’
The Wampanoag tribe, however, insists it owes the town nothing.
“The Tribe is becoming increasingly concerned with Middleborough’s irresponsible, false, and improper efforts to promote via the media a meritless claim that the town somehow possesses legal rights against the Tribe concerning the Tribe’s pursuit of a destination resort and casino in Taunton,’’ the Wampanoag’s lawyer wrote to the town.
The complaints from Middleborough are growing louder just as the Wampanoag’s pursuit of a tribal casino is at a critical point; the tribe and Governor Deval Patrick have recently begun negotiations over the terms by which a tribal casino in Taunton would operate. A negotiated agreement between Patrick and the tribe, known in the law as a compact, is a necessary step on the long road to winning federal approval for tribal gambling.
The negotiations are already taking place under immense pressure. Under state law, if the compact is not done and approved by the Legislature by July 31, state casino regulators must open the southeast region of the state to bidding by commercial casino developers, no later than the end of October.
Middleborough selectmen implored Patrick in a March 12 letter not to negotiate with the Wampanoag until the tribe fulfills its “termination obligations’’ to Middleborough. If those talks are to continue, “they need to make that compact contingent on the tribe settling business here in Middleborough,’’ said Rullo.
In its letter to the governor, Middleborough complained that the town had deeded 120 acres of land to the tribe’s investors, and had passed up state and federal grants for infrastructure improvements due to its commitment to the Wampanoag.
“The Tribe’s failure to perform effectively froze all planning and grant applications for a period of more than five years,’’ Middleborough selectmen wrote to the governor. “It is now indisputably clear that the Tribe has breached its obligations to the town and has no intention of performing and no serious interest in compensating the town for its failures.’’
After biting their tongues for months while quietly pursuing a settlement, Middleborough officials have reversed tactics. They intend to take their case to the public to bring the tribe to the bargaining table.
So far, their efforts have reaped only a warning from the tribe’s lawyers.
“The last communication we got from the tribe was a letter telling us to shut up,’’ said Rullo. “Well, we’re not going to shut up.’’
That letter, from the Boston law firm Todd & Weld, which is representing the Wampanoag, stated that the tribe has repeatedly told Middleborough officials it owes nothing to the community, and strongly objected to the town’s public claims otherwise.
“The town’s actions appear intentionally designed to interfere with the Tribe’s effort at economic development in Taunton,’’ the tribe wrote, though its lawyer. “The Tribe demands that these actions cease immediately.’’
The Patrick administration responded to Middleborough last Thursday. E. Abim Thomas, Patrick’s deputy chief legal counsel, told the board in a letter that the governor has directed his outside legal expert in tribal gambling to look into Middleborough’s claims.
“After they complete their research, they will advise my office on a proper course of action,’’ Thomas wrote.
The Wampanoag, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on the dispute with Middleborough beyond the letter from its lawyer.
Mark Arsenault can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.