2016-12-22 / News

Sault Ste. Marie Tribal Board Restricts Chairman’s Management Authority

By Tom Pink

The board of directors of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians has transferred day-to-day tribal management from the tribe’s chair, Aaron Payment, to executive director Christine Erickson.

In two resolutions adopted Tuesday, December 3, the board voted 10-2 to rescind resolution 2012-146, which gave the chair authority to manage and direct the day-to-day operations, and adopted resolution 2016-290, which delegates the tribe’s daily management to the executive director.

Mr. Payment has said his only remaining authority is to preside over board meetings and that the board’s move may jeopardize some tribal projects, such as its proposed Lansing casino, but tribal general counsel John Wernet said he doesn’t believe that to be the case.

“It is not uncommon in governments all over the country, all over the world, for the chief executive and legislative branch to have heated disagreements on management of government affairs,” Mr. Wernet said. “It has been somewhat confusing this week as this is sorted out, and that’s to be expected.”

In an opinion published on the Sault Tribe Web site, Mr. Wernet said, “…the rescinding of resolution 2012-146 eliminated the authority delegated to the chairperson by that resolution to manage the day-to-day operations of the tribe. It did not rescind powers and authority vested in the chairperson by the tribal code or granted to the chairperson by prior resolutions dealing with specific projects or circumstances. Nor, of course, did it remove any express or inherent authority vested in the chairperson by the (tribal) constitution by virtue of his office as chairperson and as a member of the board of directors.”

This is not the first time the tribal board has delegated tribal operations to the chief executive officer, Mr. Wernet said. In 2010, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior conducted a secretarial election to amend the tribal constitution and curtail the chair’s powers. Then, in 2012, after Mr. Payment was reelected as chair, the board passed a unanimous resolution to allow the chair to operate the tribe’s daily operations. That 2012 resolution was the one rescinded December 13.

Mr. Wernet said the board’s action may have caught the tribal chair by surprise, “but this is not the first time this has come up in four years. There have been previous disagreements and, this time, those proposing to rescind the resolution prevailed.

“Now we’re trying to figure out where this leaves us,” Mr. Wernet continued. “I don’t mean to diminish what happened. This is certainly a significant thing. The day-to-day management of the tribe is a substantial responsibility. It’s a lot of work…But the chair is not entirely without power…What was removed was the delegated authority over the day-to-day management of the tribe. Only that delegated power was rescinded.”

Mr. Wernet said Mr. Payment is left with other tribal functions that are designated to the chair through tribal code, such as remaining chair of the gaming authority and gaming commission, and he would still work with the board to proceed with ventures such as the proposed Lansing casino, which has yet to be approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“As far as I know, the chair and every one of the 12 board members fully support that project,” Mr. Wernet said, adding that a referendum on the project a few years ago was approved by the board, chair, and electorate. “This is an internal disagreement over how to run internal affairs. It is irrelevant to external affairs such as the Lansing project. If it is approved, we will push full steam ahead.”

Mr. Payment vacated his administrative office following the board action and has started a petition drive to restore his administrative functions.

Mr. Wernet’s opinion as general counsel is available on the Sault Tribe website, saulttribe.com, along with a statement from the tribal board of directors, which says, in part, “We understand that there are some that believe we are trying to strip the chairperson of all powers. This is not true. The chairperson is still chairperson of the tribe and represents the tribe at the local, state, and national level on behalf of the tribe, and shall retain all the powers vested to the office within the tribal constitution.”

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