Tribe Votes: Board Members Cannot Be Employees, Too
For the first time in its history, members of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians have voted to amend their constitution, deeming that a paid employee or contracted employee of the tribe will no longer be able to hold office on the tribal board.
A secretarial election to poll members about the proposed amendment was conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and called for by Todd K. Gravelle, Unit I board representative. He said concerns about corruption led him to ask the board for a membership vote about the issue six times. The tribal board agreed in September 2006 to request the election. Votes on constitutional amendments are required to be conducted by the BIA.
Of more than 9,000 registered voting members, 6,206 returned ballots on the issue, with 5,310 voting to approve the constitutional amendment and 883 voting against it. Thirteen ballots were deemed spoiled or uncountable.
Results of the vote were announced May 1.
Registration packets were mailed to members March 1. To participate, voters had to register separately with the secretarial election board, even if they already were registered to vote in tribal board elections.
Two board members currently work for the tribe, Police Chief Fred Paquin and Denise Chase, a secretary in Manistique. The new amendment mandates that each must either resign the job or the board seat in their next election.
Mr. Paquin told The St. Ignace News May 4 he is not in favor of the change because it limits the field of board candidates and because board members with a conflict of interest in a particular area already abstain from voting on those matters. Voters elected him three times, he said, even though they were aware of his tribal job. He will defer a choice about whether to resign his elected position or his job until his term expires in July 2008.
"I have been elected to the board of directors three times, beginning in June 1996, and I believe this is not a local issue in my unit, as it appears I have a lot of support within my unit," Mr. Paquin said. "But this takes a choice away from the voter. If the voters want to vote for somebody - and they know where we are employed - it is their right to do so. I have never been involved in a conflict of interest. If [a board decision] involves law enforcement, I don't vote, I step back. Any decisions the board chooses to make that takes decisions away from voters, I disagree."
As chief of police, Mr. Paquin oversees 18 officers and 12 juvenile detention officers who are responsible for law enforcement in all tribal housing areas, casinos, the juvenile detention center in St. Ignace, plus conservation enforcement across the 1836 treaty area. That area ranges from north of Alpena, west to the Leelanau area, and north to the Chocolay River near Marquette. As a board member, he is one of two people representing Unit 3, the St. Ignace area.
The tribal board has been embroiled in internal controversy for the past three years, Mr. Paquin said, adding that the decision to call for the election was made in a negative atmosphere.
With the results of the membership vote in hand May 1, Mr. Gravelle called for Mr. Paquin, in particular, to resign one position or the other.
"This also will include board member Denise Chase, but she isn't in such a prominent position as the chief of police, which has enormous power," Mr. Gravelle said. "It was a resolution that I drafted to change our tribal constitution to end the 'double dipping' or conflict of interest with tribal board members serving as employees. The members spoke loudly with a resounding 86% to end the corruption."
Ms. Chase did not respond for this story.
Formerly the tribe's head lawyer, Mr. Gravelle said he voluntarily resigned from that position shortly after taking a seat as a board member in 2004 because he felt serving in both posts would be unethical.
"Double dipping means you're paid as a board member and as an employee," he said. "Most members believe you're paid twice for what is really a full time job as a board member. They know this practice is unhealthy." Tribal board members are paid $68,000 per year for their service, Mr. Gravelle said.
Some members see the amendment as a first step toward more self-directed changes in their government.
"Now, we must move forward toward adopting other structural changes to our constitution, like separation of powers, checks and balances, qualified individuals to serve in the judicial branch of government, and broader representation for the 62% of our members who live south of the Mackinac Bridge and throughout the United States," Mr. Gravelle said.
According to the tribe's constitution, adopted in the early 1970s, the document may be amended by a majority vote at an election called for that purpose by the Secretary of the Interior, provided that turnout of qualified voters is at least 30%.
The newly approved amendment's language is: "Any person elected or appointed to a position on the board, who is either an employee or independent contractor of the Tribe, shall voluntarily resign his or her employment position and/or surrender any rights under any contract with the Tribe prior to assuming the duties of office or taking the oath of office. Failure to voluntarily resign and/or terminate the contractual relationship with the Tribe shall bar the elected or appointed official from assuming the duties of office or taking the oath of office."
The tribe's Upper Peninsula service area, which includes Chippewa, Mackinac, Luce, Schoolcraft, Alger, Delta, and Marquette counties, is divided into five units. Tribal members who are registered as voters in each unit elect representatives to the 13-person board by write-in ballot. The number of representatives chosen from each unit reflects the unit's population. All officers serve for four years, and staggered terms put half of the board up for election every two years.
The tribe has more than 33,000 enrolled members.