PRESQUE ISLE, Maine – For the second time in four months, the unelected chief and council of the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians have rejected a petition from tribal citizens seeking a meeting to select candidates for new elections. They claim that such a meeting would “violate the tribe’s bylaws.”
Instead, unelected Chief Victoria Higgins and the seated council, whose members lost a disputed May 2007 election but remain in office, said they will hold a community meeting Aug. 23 to ask citizens to vote on three amendments to the bylaws.
But some tribal members are reluctant to attend anything other than a nomination meeting to select candidates for new elections, because they don’t want to legitimize any action of what they consider to be “an unelected chief and tribal council.”
Higgins and the council rejected the first petition for new elections in April, after an annual nominations meeting failed to attract the required quorum. Higgins claimed the bylaws don’t allow a second nomination meeting and told citizens she and the council decided that meant they could stay in office until the next election cycle in 2011. The tribe’s bylaws state the chief’s term is two years.
A second petition with 38 signatures was filed with the tribal council in late June. The petition asked for “a community meeting for the purpose of nominations for chief, vice chief, tribal council and nominations for the membership committee. There will be no other items up for discussion.”
Higgins said the petition was rejected because “we have determined that our bylaws do not require that we hold a special purpose meeting where the items on the agenda require amending the bylaws.”
That response was a “typical attempt to muddy the waters,” said tribal member Barbara Hunt, who helped initiate the petition drive.
“Everything they say is the opposite of the truth. We weren’t asking to amend the bylaws. We’re looking for new elections so that the people can elect a legitimate government.”
Hunt and other members said BIA’s Eastern Regional Director Franklin Keel and BIA Deputy Director of Operations Mike Smith have not responded to e-mails seeking help.
Keel and Smith also did not respond to several requests for comment.
Higgins said she and the council will present three bylaw amendments for tribal citizens to vote on at the Aug. 23 meeting: A change to the absentee voting regulation, a change of election day, and amendments to the bylaws regarding how the Elders Council – which rules on election challenges – is formed, contacted and operated.
Asked if members will receive copies of the proposed amendments to review before the meeting, Higgins said members already received copies when they “were approved last spring by the council,” and that members can get copies at the tribal office and copies will be available at the meeting.
But Marilyn Carlton, who won the disputed May 2007 election as chief against Higgins by a vote of 107-81, said the proposed Aug. 23 vote by the general tribal membership would be illegitimate because the council itself – apart from being unelected – does not meet the bylaw requirements to recommend amendments.
“For the record, they can’t recommend amendments to the bylaws, because the seated council doesn’t have a quorum to do that. If they don’t have eight members of a full 11-member council, they can’t do it. And they don’t have a full 11-member council. They only have an eight-member council and that includes the vice chief and the chief, and the chief doesn’t vote unless it’s to break a tie. It’s virtually impossible for them to legally amend the bylaws.”
It was Carlton who launched an Interior Department inspector general’s investigation of the May 2007 disputed election, which continues to divide the tribe.
The report, released in the spring, confirmed that Carlton, who was elected chief and the slate of newly elected council members, were never seated because the election was invalidated by an “Elders Council” that was “100 percent conflicted” – it consisted mostly of the people who had just been defeated in the election or their relatives.
Carlton alleged that tribal attorney Doug Luckerman had improperly convinced 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.
The investigation determined there was no improper relationship between Keel and Luckerman, but tribal members complain Luckerman has control of Higgins and the council.
Higgins declined to reveal who wrote the bylaw amendments. “The amendments speak for themselves.”
She said notices with the agenda, date, time and place of the meeting would go out to “eligible members” three weeks before the meeting, and postcard reminders will be sent out eight days before the meeting. Members had not received notices by Aug. 5.
Asked what the council would do to avoid previous allegations that not all members were notified of meetings, Higgins said, “The council intends to have an (sic) neutral observer be present during the preparation of the mailings to witness that envelopes/labels match the mailing list.”
Roger Pictou, a former chief who served in the 1990s, questioned whether many people would attend the meeting.
“People are very distraught about what’s going on in the tribe to the point where they will not participate with the currently seated illegal government. They’ve driven enough people away from an active role in our government that the people who remain are easily dissuaded from further involvement because they have this lawyer behind them.”
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