|August 15, 2013
Salazar Settlement topic at July quarterly meeting
By Alyssa Nenemay
Jolene Frey and Eldon White of The People's Voice advocacy group speak to Tribal Council. (Alyssa Nenemay, photo)
PABLO – In the final component to the July Quarterly meeting saga, the non-profit organization “The People’s Voice” took the stage to discuss the rejection of their recently submitted petitions.
The People’s Voice, a self proclaimed advocacy group, formed last year following an announcement that the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CS&KT) would be receiving $150 million as part of the historical $1 billion “Salazar Settlement” (Nez Perce Tribe, et al. v. Salazar, et al. suit). The group has been adamant in pursuing distribution of the settlement funds received by CS&KT in its entirety.
CS&KT was one of 41 tribes to settle a joint suit against the U.S. Departments of Interior and Treasury for alleged mismanagement of tribal “monetary assets,” which are assets that could be converted easily into cash–such as natural resources. The original suit was filed in 2006, with CS&KT joining in 2008.
Represented by the non-profit law firm the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), the tribes were involved in 22 months of classified negotiations with the U.S. before settling the suit in April 2012. The Department of Interior manages over 56 million acres of tribal trust land and the settlement resolved over 100 years of claims.
“These important settlements reflect President Obama’s continuing commitment to ensuring empowerment and reconciliation for American Indians,” then Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar reportedly said. “It strengthens the government-to-government relationship with Tribal nations, helps restore a positive working relationship with Indian Country leaders and empowers American Indian communities.”
Following a series of district meetings that were hosted throughout the reservation, the Tribal Council held an executive voting session last July that resulted in an official Resolution (12-180) to distribute $75 million of the $150 million settlement to CS&KT members. The distribution allowed for a “special” $10,000 per-capita payment last September to an estimated 7,850 enrolled members.
Although the vote was held in executive session, the referendum’s minutes report that all ten council members voted in favor of the distribution. According to the July 26,2012 Tribal Council Minutes, Chairman Durglo stated: “We heard challenges and the needs and wants from the community. Many comments wanted plans for the long term; several suggested purchasing the Kerr Dam, to support elders, economic development and education. This gives us opportunities within the Tribe and it helps the membership with their immediate needs.”
Although official plans for the remainder of the settlement funds have not been disclosed, last August, the tribal council took action to make a $4 million contribution to NARF, their legal representation in the suit. The contribution will be paid in three installments over the next three years. Tribal council made an official Resolution (12-228) to appropriate $1,333,334 of the settlement to the tribes’ FY 2012 general fund in order to meet their contributions.
Operating solely on donations, NARF was founded in 1970 to “defend” and “assert” the rights of American Indian tribes. NARF has worked with tribes throughout the US and has been involved in high profile cases such as Cobell v. Salazar and the Violence Against Women Act.
According to its site, the non-profit law firm focuses its practice in five key areas: “the preservation of tribal existence; the protection of tribal natural resources; the promotion of Native American human rights; the accountability of governments to Native Americans; and the development of Indian law and educating the public about Indian rights, laws, and issues.”
Faced with scrutiny for tribal council’s decision to contribute a portion of its settlement to NARF, Chairman Durglo collaborated with the firm’s executive director John Echohawk to write an explanatory letter that was published in the Valley Journal in February 2013.
The letter stated: “NARF spent its own attorney time and invested its own money in advancing tribes’ claims, even selling one of its own buildings to cover expert witness and consultant’s fees. When tribes ultimately reached settlement in Salazar, NARF asked for voluntary contributions. Unlike a for-profit private law firm, the attorneys and directors of NARF received no bonuses or share of litigation profits resulting from the Salazar settlements. As is typical of nonprofit organizations, the funds NARF received went back into the organization in order to ensure NARF can continue to represent tribes and tribal members in the future.”
During the July 5 Quarterly Meeting, the People’s Voice representatives included Eldon White, Jolene Frey, and Donna Orr. Chairman Durglo immediately explained to the group that their recent petition submission had received its response and the “matter was closed.”
The People’s Voice had been meeting and gathering signatures to gain support for two petitions. The first was a “Petition for Referendum” stating: “We are petitioning for a referendum popular vote on Resolution #12-180 for the distribution of the remainder of the Salazar Settlement funds.”
The second was a “Petition for Constitutional Amendment,” stating: “We are petitioning for a secretarial election for a constitutional amendment.” The group would like to amend Article V of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal constitution and bylaws: “Vacancies and removal from office,” which describes the tribes’ procedure for removing a tribal council representative from government office.
The group would like to add: “SECTION 3: RECALL. Upon petition of 1/3 of the eligible voters of the Flathead Reservation, the membership shall have the power to recall any Tribal Council member for malfeasance, or violation of Section 2 of this Article, or any part of the Confederated Tribes Constitution.”
Following an extensive review by the tribes’ legal and enrollment departments, tribal council rejected the People’s Voice’ set of petitions. Some of the issues said to be found included: double signatures, signatures from off reservation members, and unverifiable addresses, which disqualified the signatures and resulted in a failure to meet the 1/3 quota.
In order to meet petition requirements, the People’s Voice would have needed to collect a minimum of 1,400 signatures from eligible tribal voters on the Flathead Reservation. The group claimed to have submitted 1,446 signatures and tribal council’s denial letter stated they had received 1,259 valid signatures. To further complicate the situation, the petition pages were numbered and the review concluded that 13 pages were not included in the group’s submission.
This finding resulted in a back and forth discussion between the group and tribal council on the legal interpretation of Ordinance 53A, which establishes CS&KT’s rules for formulating and submitting petitions. Section four “Filing of Petitions” states: “The Tribal Secretary shall also acknowledge in writing his receipt of the petition indicating the exact number of signatures which are attached.”
The group said they interpreted the section to mean the Tribal Secretary’s signature was verifying there were 1,446 signatures received upon submission. Durglo said the Tribal Secretary’s signature verified that they had received the petition and acknowledged signatures would be based on an evaluation in accordance with section six “Action on the Petition,” which outlines the criteria of the secretary’s revision: “… (a) the validity of the signatures; (b) adequacy of the number signatures; (c) the propriety of the petitioning procedures.”
Durglo said the petition was revised as it was submitted and in accordance with section four of the ordinance, once submitted, neither party could make edits to the document. Durglo said that the 1,259 signatures reported by tribal council were the result of a verification process and the advisement of their staff.
Durglo said tribal council has deemed the issue resolved in accordance with Section Six, which states: “In the event the Tribal Council decides that the petitioning action for any reason is insufficient for the calling of an election, the Council shall inform the spokesman for the petitioners of that fact and the basis for their decision…The decision of the Council in such matters shall be final.”
With the discussion failing to reach common ground, Durglo said the group had legal options. “We differ opinions so I guess I suggest you take it to a court of law because we believe we acted correctly based on recommendations from our staff,” he said.
(For more information on the Quarterly Meeting read the July 05 Tribal Council Minutes).