BIA will encourage new Micmac elections

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WASHINGTON – While the unelected chief of the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians has announced that she and the seated 2005 council will remain in office without elections until 2011, a BIA official has said the agency will look into the possibility of rescinding an “Opinion Letter” supporting that government, and will encourage them to hold a new election.

Mike Smith, the BIA’s deputy director for operations said he will move forward with efforts to shed light on a May 2007

Interview with Victoria Higgins Seated chief of the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians

ICT: Your April 17 letter to tribal members says you don’t plan on holding elections until 2011. Can you tell me what the basis for that is?

Higgins: When did you receive that letter?

ICT: I received it the other day.

Higgins: Right now I’m having my lawyer write you a letter.

ICT: I’m not really interested in speaking with your lawyer because, according to the inspector general’s report, he was supposed to recuse himself regarding the May 2007 election. What was your response to the inspector general’s report?

Higgins: I think a lot of it wasn’t true, like some parts that (former chief) Rick Getchell said and Marilyn herself, she didn’t give exactly the correct information.

ICT: About what, specifically?

Higgins: On a lot of that about the people being notified. The people were notified. It’s just that you have to think of the tribe … everybody’s related one way or another.

ICT: Right, but the issue is the May 2007 election that you lost.

Higgins: I know that.

ICT: And yet you’re still sitting as chief.

Higgins: And the thing is, at the time they had the Elders Council, which is in the bylaws, but it doesn’t say one member, two members, three members can be appointed. They have no rules or regulations. It’s just that the thing (the election) could be contested. It was contested. They got the elders together and they went through four things (issues) and on three of those things they (the elders) invalidated the election.

ICT: But, according to the inspector general’s report, the elders who invalidated the election had just lost the election. They had a conflict of interest in reviewing the election. What’s stopping you from holding another election?

Higgins: Nothing’s stopping me. I’m following the bylaws.

ICT: You wrote this letter saying you wouldn’t hold another election until 2011, but the bylaws don’t prohibit holding an election before then.

Higgins: Only the first Sunday of April. (The bylaws say nominations for elections take place on the first Sunday in April during a general meeting.) It’s gone by. We didn’t have a quorum.

ICT: What it looks like is that you’re not being democratic; you’re staying in power and stopping an election from going forward because people might vote you and the council out.

Higgins: No, that isn’t the way it is.

ICT: But if you refuse to hold an election until 2011, that’s the way it looks.

Higgins: I know they can wait until next April.

ICT: Why can’t you hold another nomination meeting? People brought you a petition to hold another nomination meeting.

Higgins: Because the council didn’t accept the petition. They never have accepted a petition before.

ICT: But why not accept one now knowing there is all this turmoil and all these problems within the tribe?

Higgins: There’s no turmoil and there’s no problems with the tribe. It’s just that chosen few and Marilyn.

ICT: You promised to hold another election in July 2007. Why wasn’t that held?

Higgins: We had another election (nomination meeting) in May and that group came and they got rowdy and they started pushing and shoving, so we had to cancel that one. We had another one a month later and she wouldn’t let her people come in, and this is the third time we tried to have elections, so what we did was we wrote to the Department of the Interior and we got a grant for $54,000 to fix the bylaws, especially the Elders Council, because she says I don’t care who gets in I can get eight elders and have the election invalidated, so she’s continued doing that. She’s mad. Ever since this tribe began everybody who’s been in authority she’s been against. I got two boxes of letters she wrote to different chiefs.

ICT: But she won the election, she got more votes that you did, so she must have some support.

Higgins: Well, the elders said it’s invalidated. I’m not related to any of those elders. I have no relatives here.

ICT: You’ve been chief since 2006 and you’ve never been elected by the members of the tribe. Don’t you think an election should be held so people can elect who they want as leaders?

Higgins: Right. We tried, but we don’t have a quorum and the elders won’t come out because they’re afraid.

ICT: But you had a petition asking for another nomination meeting.

Higgins: The tribe doesn’t accept petitions. You accept one one week and the next week 25 other people go out and sign petitions. I think she’s just upset because she’s broken every one of the bylaws.

ICT: I think she’s upset because she won the election and wasn’t seated.

Higgins: Okay. But the elders invalidated it.

ICT: But the elders had a conflict of interest. So now you’re saying you’re not going to hold elections until 2011. Do you think that’s good for the tribe?

Higgins: Well, I do because we’re moving ahead.

ICT: What are you moving ahead with?

Higgins: Economic development. I don’t wish to discuss it. I haven’t signed any agreements and I don’t wish to discuss it.

ICT: Do you think it’s okay to stay in power when you weren’t elected by the people?

Higgins: Yes, I told you.

ICT: Please tell me again: Why is it okay for you to remain in power without holding elections even though you were never elected and you lost the election. How is that democratic and how does it help the tribe?

Higgins: It’s helping the tribe because if you have somebody coming in who doesn’t know where they’re going. … when I came in here we almost got closed down.

ICT: What for?

Higgins: Misuse of funds.

ICT: You mean by the previous administration? The chief who appointed you was accused of misuse of funds?

Higgins: No! There was never misuse of funds. The audits and everything found that.

ICT: Given the fact that this tribe is in disarray, there’s incredible unhappiness among your members, and a big controversy about the May 2007 election, don’t you think elections would help?

Higgins: It probably could, but then it might not.

ICT: So, what’s the solution to reconciliation?

Higgins: I don’t have the solution right now and I can’t talk on my own. I’ll have to talk with my council. Normal
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election.

The election has been a source of contention among tribal members and remains clouded, especially following a recently released report from the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General.

“I think we would like to be proactive and that is taking a look at exactly what’s happened and maybe taking a look at the confusion, if you will, at what happened back in May of 2007, and see if there’s any way that we can assist in clarifying who the leadership is,” Smith said April 27.

Smith’s comments follow a story in ICT [http ://www.indiancountrytoday.com/politics/42800962.html] on the findings in the inspector general’s report.

The investigation was requested by Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe in January 2008 based on allegations from Marilyn Carlton, “who was elected Chief of the Micmacs in their 2007 government election,” the report says.

Carlton and a slate of new council members who won the May 2007 vote were never seated because the election was invalidated by an “Elders Council.”

Carlton alleged that tribal attorney Doug Luckerman had improperly convinced BIA Regional Director Franklin Keel to officially recognize the Elders Council decision to invalidate the 2007 election results, thus allowing the incumbent 2005 tribal government to remain in power. Keel did so in an “Opinion Letter” May 18, 2007, in which he said the BIA would continue to recognize the 2005 chief and council until informed of a change in leadership after a new election that was supposed to take place in July 2007, but never did. No election has been held since then.

The investigation determined that there was no improper relationship between Keel and Luckerman, but found that the Elders Council was 100 percent conflicted – four of the eight people were incumbents who had lost their bids for re-election, and two others were their relations. Of the remaining two, one publicly disliked Carlton and the other said her signature on the invalidation was obtained under false pretenses.

Victoria Higgins, who lost the 2007 election to Carlton, remains in office as chief. Higgins was appointed as chief by former Chief William Phillips in 2006, and re-appointed as chief by the tribal council in the summer of 2007. There is no provision in the tribe’s bylaws for a chief or a council to appoint a successor, the report says.

The May 2007 election dispute has continued since.

An April 5 general meeting scheduled, among other things, to nominate candidates for an election that was to take place in May, failed to gain a quorum of 74 members. During the meeting, 25 tribal members signed a petition asking for another general meeting April 19 “to resolve the May 2007 election dispute” and submitted it to Higgins and the tribal council.

On April 17, Higgins sent a letter to tribal members saying there is no provision in the tribe’s bylaws to call a second nomination meeting and that the tribal council had rejected the petition. There is no provision in the tribe’s bylaws that prohibits a second nomination meeting, however.

“Therefore, it is the contention of the tribal leaders that the current chief and council shall remain in their seats until the next election cycle in 2011,” Higgins wrote. The bylaws state that elections are to take place every two years.

In his testimony to the inspector general’s investigators, Keel said he had no means of investigating any allegations of impropriety concerning the election processes followed and could only rely on information he was given by the incumbent government and “their tribal attorney.”

“Following this review of the seven elders’ conflicts, and the manipulation of the eight elders, Keel was asked what action he believes the BIA should take regarding the matter,” the report says. “Keel stated that if an outside objective fact finder, such as the OIG, issues a report documenting the conflict, BIA ‘may need to take some action.’ According to Keel, BIA would have to consider whether he, as regional director, was misled and ‘defrauded’ by the incumbent government into issuing his ‘opinion letter’ that stated BIA would recognize the Elders Council decision to invalidate the 2007 election,” the report says.

“In understanding that the only affirmative action BIA may be able to take in response to learning the Elders Council that invalidated the May 2007 election was 100 percent conflicted. … is to rescind its opinion letter. .Keel stated that the BIA would consider that option,” the report says. Keel said a decision to rescind the opinion letter would likely need approval from the assistant secretary for Indian affairs and the Office of the Solicitor.

Smith said that option would be part of the discussion.

“I’ll talk to Frank about his statement that he might rescind his opinion letter. I think when he was doing that, he was looking at the chain of command. If there’s something he needs to do that would be required by this office he would consider that, so I’ll talk to him about that,” Smith said. He said the agency will review the tribe’s bylaws again.

“I think we really need to take one more look at exactly what is in the tribe’s bylaws and how they’re interpreting whether or not there’s a need for a new election, because it sounds like there really should be a new election so that people can participate and be satisfied that they have an elected government.”

Although the BIA respects tribal sovereignty and cannot impose its will on the tribe, or force the tribe to hold a new election, Smith said, “We’ll promote that. We’ll do what we can to encourage the tribe to move in that direction.”