During a hectic and a technologically troubled Webex meeting last night, the Trinidad City Council discussed the controversial topic of water for the proposed hotel at the Cher-Ae Heights Casino, and ultimately voted to not enter into a memorandum of understanding with the Trinidad Rancheria until the city’s planning commission completes a draft water policy. 

Elsewhere in the meeting, the council officially recognized Bryan Buckman for his nearly 20 years of service to city government and unanimously passed an extension to the contract between the city and the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services. The extension to the contract will last from June 30 through Sept. 30, and will allow Trinidad and the county to iron out a new contract between the two entities. 

While the main gist of the meeting was supposed to focus solely on whether or not the city should enter into a memorandum of understanding with the rancheria, the conversation veered in a number of directions. Some residents were concerned that the MOU between the two governments would be a step in the direction of approving water for the hotel project, but Trinidad Mayor Steve Ladwig assured them that would not be the case, calling the MOU a “small step in the decision-making process.”

“The MOU is not geared to making a decision on the water…,” Ladwig said, “it is only aimed at continuing the discussion.” 

One of the directions the conversation veered towards had to do with government-to-government conversations between the Trinidad Rancheria and the council. 

Trinidad City Manager Eli Naffah read from a state recommendation that says confidential government-to-government conversations between a tribe and a municipality should be done with less than a quorum to prevent a need for a public meeting. Naffah went on to highlight why confidential meetings are essential.

“There is confidential information when you have a hotel that is going to be competing with other hotels in the area. You can’t have all of that information brought out into the public,” Naffah said, adding that this confidentiality is essential to getting as much information from another entity so that the city can make truly informed decisions. 

During the meeting Jacque Hostler-Carmesin, chief executive officer of the Trinidad Rancheria, echoed Naffah’s sentiment when it came to confidentiality. She said good-faith conversations between the two governments means respecting the confidentiality demands from the tribe. She also called the idea that there are backroom deals going on an “illusion.” 

However, in the public comment section Bryce Kenny, a local attorney in Trinidad, said that a minority of the council making decisions on whether or not to grant confidentiality for certain topics for the tribe on the spot is problematic and may violate certain government transparency laws. Kenny also called for an end to the private government-to-government talks.

“It creates the perception deals are being made,” Kenny said. 

After a bit of a back and forth between Hostler-Carmesin and members of the public about issues not directly related to the MOU (such as whether or not the Humboldt Alliance for Responsible Planning is totally against a hotel ever being built — one HARP member says he does not totally object to one), Hostler-Carmesin said that the hotel project is moving forward, and last night’s meeting was about whether or not the city wants to partner with the tribe.

“The tribe stated that it will not grant the city the right to use its property until and unless the city works in good faith on [the Rancheria’s] priorities,” Hostler-Carmesin said. 

A little after this, Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone cautioned the council that it does not have any water to offer the Rancheria, and that initiating the MOU would create further issues between the two entities. 

“There is no water to offer,” Madrone said. “I do not know how to put it even more simply to you.”

Madrone then quoted from a government document that essentially said that the City of Trinidad’s water supply is already maxed out, and that during drought years the city may not have the water available to provide for its constituents. 

“We’ve known this for a long time,” Madrone said, adding that he has personally worked on this issue for a number of years. “If you understand the concept that you really don’t have any water to offer to anybody and you understand what you, as a city, have done in 30 years of promises … I don’t think it is the community’s mistrust of [government-to-government talks] or sovereignty, it’s the idea that this council still thinks that you have water to even consider negotiating over.” 

Madrone further said that it would be inappropriate for the council to enter into an MOU with the idea that they have the water necessary to negotiate with.

With that in mind, Councilmember Tom Davies proposed a motion to deny the MOU until the Trinidad Planning Commission completes its Water Policy draft. After some flubbing of the vote count and some technical hiccups, Davies’ motion passed 3-2 with Jack West and Dwight Miller dissenting.