Mark Radoff – Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Nation Tribe
The Sycuan Band was living on land in the Dehesa Valley in San Diego County in Southern California for about 12,000 years before President Ulysses Grant’s executive order set aside 640 acres for a reservation in 1875.
One of 13 bands in the Kumeyaay (pronounced KOOM-yai or KOOM-uh-yai) Nation, the Sycuan (pronounced si-kwaan) Band is part of a nation whose ancestral lands extend from the Pacific Ocean to the western banks of the Colorado River on the Arizona border.
However, its original reservation just east of San Diego is one of the smallest in the U.S. at 1 square mile.
The tribe has increased its land base in the last decade. It operates a casino and resort, golf resort, a market and a gas station and about half of the 300 Sycuan members live on tribal lands. All are represented by General Counsel Mark Radoff. Though not a member of any Native American tribe or nation, he has extensive experience serving indigenous people, including a large Navajo tribe in New Mexico and various San Diego County and Arizona tribes.
“I got into law to do public interest and social justice cases that improve the community,” Radoff says. “My current position as a true generalist provides incredible impact. That’s what I find so rewarding.”
Radoff’s legal responsibilities include employment litigation, labor and human resource matters, water law, land acquisition and cultural resource cases. He also oversees gaming litigation and negotiations with the state of California, protects intellectual property, and manages Native American child welfare cases and conservatorships and guardianships.
He works with the seven-member tribal council, as well its housing authority, education department, tax commission, legislative committee and economic development corporation.
Radoff is also building the Sycuan Band’s tribal court system. Tribes have the authority to set up their own justice systems that mirror federal and state courts, although California tribal courts do not have criminal jurisdiction for nonmembers and the state’s civil regulatory jurisdiction doesn’t apply to tribes. However, elements of state law can become part of tribal law, he says.
The Sycuan Band is already a member Southern California Intertribal Court that hears conservatorship matters, tort claims and employment disputes, for instance. Radoff is expanding the foundation for the Sycuan Band’s own justice system—working toward an independent forum that would include a permanent judge, attorneys, security and a courtroom.
He hopes to have the court established in 2023 and says it will hear a wider range of cases than those currently heard in the intertribal court—such as what happens to land when someone passes away.
The tribal court system would also have jurisdiction over issues including patron claims from the casino, environmental protection, peace and safety issues, and cases related to the Sycuan Band’s liquor and tobacco laws.
Better health, more land
Radoff will also provide legal support as the Sycuan Band expands its medical and dental services at a planned new health center. The center, which will replace a smaller clinic, will house a pharmacy and social service agencies.
To prepare for the expansion, Radoff is working with the Healthcare General Counsel Forum, underwritten by Consero, to better understand the legal functions for hospitals and health care systems. He says that while Indian Health Services clinics are similar to Federally Qualified Health Centers in medically underserved areas and populations, the compliance, governance and regulatory requirements are unique to Indian communities.
Unlike most governments, tribes do not have a land tax base. So, tribes use revenues from gaming facilities to support roads, water, social services and economic growth. Radoff emphasizes it’s what the Sycuan Band can do with revenues from the casino that makes his work so rewarding.
For instance, the Sycuan Tribal Development Corp., which Radoff advises, bought the Singing Hills Country Club and Resort in 2001. The resort, which is adjacent to the reservation, had been held in trust by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and was acquired in its fee-to-trust process.
In 2003, the corporation built what’s now the Best Western Plus Marina Gateway Hotel on the National City waterfront, then bought and renovated the U.S. Grant hotel, built in 1910 and located on what was originally Kumeyaay land.
In 2013, the Sycuan Band acquired 1,357 acres of county land in the fee-to-trust program. The tribe is now developing a 25-home neighborhood there, Radoff says.
Since joining the Sycuan Band, Radoff has helped STDC expand the Sycuan Smoke Shop and open the Sycuan Square convenience store and gas station.
Radoff earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of California, Santa Barbara. After earning his J.D. from University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law in 1985, his desire to work for the public interest led him to Crownpoint, New Mexico, where he worked for DNA People’s Legal Services.
Radoff’s experiences with the Navajo are the basis for his novel, “Bad Men Among Whites”—he’s currently seeking an agent to help get it published. It’s about a disbarred attorney who transports a stolen Anasazi artifact through reservation land, causing a series of misfortunes.
From 1997 to 2004, Radoff was a juvenile public defender in Inyo County, California. In September 2003, he became directing attorney for California Indian Legal Services and left his public defender role in July 2004.
Radoff also served as chief judge for the tribal court for the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe of the Chemehuevi Reservation from February 2016 to January 2019. In June 2018, he joined the Sycuan Band.
“This is like a big family,” Radoff says. “Everything I do impacts the entire community. We’re trying to create more opportunities for the members and normalize the economic scenarios here and I’m a big part of that.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Winter IV 2023 Edition here.
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