The Aquinnah selectmen will send a formal cease and desist letter to the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) asking the tribe to halt all activity to convert the tribal community center to a gambling hall.

The selectmen voted unanimously to send the letter following a 20-minute executive session Monday morning with their town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport.

D'Amato Builders, a Connecticut firm known for construction work on casinos, was on site at the unfinished tribal community center last week. — Mark Lovewell

“I’m disappointed by the fact that I thought we’ve had a pretty good relationship with them [the tribe], and that there has been no dialogue about the casino,” said selectman Jim Newman, speaking publicly following the executive session.

An attorney for the tribe told the Gazette in an email later in the day that the tribe will not recognize the cease and desist order.

The closed-door session by the selectmen was called following the announcement by tribal leaders last week that they intend to move immediately to convert their unfinished community center in Aquinnah to a class II gaming facility, despite a pending case in federal court that will decide whether they have the right to do so in the face of state and local prohibitions.

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, the former tribal chairman who how heads the tribe’s gaming corporation, confirmed that the tribe hopes to offer class II bingo beginning in the fall. The community center property has already been transferred to the gaming corporation, she said, speaking in response to inquiries from the Gazette.

On Monday all three selectmen expressed their chagrin at the lack of communication between the tribe and town.

“I think this board has tried to convene with Tobias and other members of the planning team down at the tribe on several occasions,” said Julianne Vanderhoop, a selectman and member of the tribe, referring to tribal chairman Tobias Vanderhoop. “We’re trying to develop a better relationship by communication and regular meetings and I have heard little to nothing [since the last meeting was held early in the year],” she said.

Mr. Newman agreed, additionally noting a recent series of meetings between the town and the tribe to review a longstanding joint public safety memorandum between the two governments that allows for cooperative police, fire and ambulance services.

“At no point [during those meetings] has there been any discussion of the casino,” Mr. Newman said, adding: “And this would throw out that whole agreement because we are not prepared to deal with a casino down there.”

Arguments are scheduled for next month in federal court in the case between the tribe, the commonwealth, the town and an Aquinnah taxpayer group. The central issue in the case is whether the tribe must follow state and local zoning laws according to a land claims agreement it signed in 1983, or whether a subsequent federal law, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act supersedes that agreement. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that the tribe waived its sovereignty when it signed the 1983 agreement and the state attorney general, the principal litigant in the case, has been seeking to block the tribe from going forward with a casino on the Vineyard. The town and the taxpayer group later joined the case.

Mr. Rappaport told the selectmen Monday that if the tribe does not comply with the cease and desist letter, further court action may be necessary.

In an email to the Gazette Monday, the tribe's attorney Scott Crowell said that it “does not recognize the cease and desist order as having any force and effect. The tribe's position, consistent with the federal government, is that IGRA supersedes all laws of the commonwealth and the town that are integral to the tribe's operation of a gaming facility.”

If the town ultimately decides to seek a federal court order to block the work, Mr. Crowell said, “we are prepared to defend the tribe's position.”

He also said Tobias Vanderhoop, the tribal chairman, last week offered to have the tribe meet “with the town and work government-to-government to provide assurance that any work would be done and be inspected to code, but the Tribe would not divest any jurisdiction to the town regarding the gaming center,” he said.

As for communicating its plans for the casino, Mr. Crowell said he was at a general membership meeting in January when tribe members were told with “great specificity” what would occur and when. If anything, the project has gone slower than planned, he added. And the town joined the lawsuit knowing full well that the tribe was moving ahead with its plans, he said.