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Micmacs petition for a new election

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine – Members of the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians are circulating a petition for new elections.

Blanche Jewell, a former 14-year council member, started the petition after finding out recently that her granddaughter, who has four small children, couldn’t access her Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program fuel assistance all winter. According to Jewell, the seated tribal government did not release the program until early May.

“She had to skimp. She couldn’t heat during the day; she had to save it for night when it got cold.”

Jewell said heating oil from CITGO wasn’t distributed either, because members have to use the LIHEAP oil first.

 Lesa Bennett responds

In an e-mail exchange, Micmac Tribal Council member Lesa Bennett discussed a number of issues surrounding the ongoing controversy over the May 2007 election. On the IG’s report: We were shocked and saddened to read the IG report because of the biased manner in which it presented the information the IG was provided by us, our attorney and the BIA. The IG presented his analysis of the conflict without context and though he was made aware that no tribal laws were broken, his report made it seem as though the tribe violated its own bylaws, which it has not done. The IG report presents information in a manner that picks and chooses amongst facts to present only one side of the situation. Here is one example. The IG report spends a lot of amount talking about the “conflict.” However, the report completely leaves out information that was provided to the IG that puts the conflict in context, both historically and legally. Historically, to form an Elder’s Council in our tribe only requires local elders be notified of the meeting, there has never been a requirement to notify every single elder in the tribe. Considering that the majority of elders live outside of Aroostook County, it would be just impractical. The local elders were contacted. Some decided not to attend the meeting because they did not want to give the Elders Council any legitimacy. On councilors’ stipends: The chief, vice chief and councilors get $400 per meeting and we have two meetings per month. If there are additional council meetings also known as special meetings, we do not get paid for those meetings. Additionally, we do not get $200 a month for gas, food or any other amenities. This is just false information. We just get reimbursed for meal expenses if and when we travel to Augusta or to meet with the other tribes. We also use the tribal vehicle for transportation therefore we do not have gas reimbursements or stipends. The money to pay $800 per month for the chief, vice chief and councilors comes from the following: 50 percent comes from the Indirect Costs budget and the other 50percent from the Consolidated Tribal Government Program. On the council’s denial of a petition for another nomination meeting: When we got the petition we realized this issue had not come up before because there has never been an annual meeting that has not had a quorum that anybody here can remember. Our annual meeting is on the same day every year, the first Sunday in April, which is in our bylaws. Pretty much everyone knows that. Anyway, our bylaws are pretty specific about when we have to have our nomination meeting and when we have to have our election. On the council’s decision to remain in office until 2011: It was not actually a vote to remain in office. It was a restatement of our bylaws and a statement of fact. Currently, our bylaws provide for a nomination meeting every two years. The next nomination meeting will be held on the first Sunday in April 2011. On what the council will do if another petition for a nomination meeting and election is submitted: I would not like to pre-decide any issue that may come before the council or talk for any of the other tribal council members.

“I don’t know what they’ve done with the CITGO money. We didn’t get our $300 clothing allowance either. We got our LIHEAP notices now in May when it’s warm out, and the reason they gave it to us this week is because I called (BIA Eastern Region Director) Franklin Keel and I faxed him a lot of information because our people are going without.”

Jewell said Keel encouraged her to circulate the election petition. The petitioners will gather as many signatures as possible quickly and submit the petition to Victoria Higgins, the unelected seated chief, with a copy faxed to Keel.

The petition drive is the latest action in a simmering two-year controversy that has come to a boil since the release last month of an Interior Department Inspector General investigation report of a complaint concerning the May 2007 elections.

Marilyn Carlton, who won the election for chief over Higgins, filed the complaint. Carlton and her council were never seated because an “Elders Council” invalidated the election and kept Higgins and the incumbent 2005 council in power. Higgins, who has never been elected chief by the membership, was appointed by a former chief and reappointed by the 2005 council.

The IG report said the Elders Council members were “100 percent conflicted.” Four of the eight members had just been defeated in the election, two were their relations, one publicly disliked Carlton, and the other said she signed the invalidation under false pretenses.

The investigation found an allegation that attorney Doug Luckerman, who represents Higgins and the seated council, had improperly influenced Keel to support the invalidation of the election baseless.

Keel, however, did write an “Opinion Letter” saying that the BIA would recognize the defeated 2005 council until July 2007 when new elections were supposed to take place. Elections did not take place then or since. Keel said he was unaware of the Elders Council conflict of interest until the IG’s report was released.

Luckerman told IG investigators that, although he has represented the tribe since 2000, he did not read the tribe’s bylaws until the election dispute erupted in the spring of 2007.

“Luckerman stated that he now acknowledges the legal advice he provided to the Micmacs in the past without consulting the bylaws, was ‘the wrong thing to do,’” the report said.

The investigators told Luckerman that five of the nine council members who won the May 2007 election plus Chief-elect Carlton, had a signed petition with 68 signatures a year earlier to fire him.

“And therefore there was an appearance that Luckerman had an interest in invalidating the 2007 election inasmuch as he knew that he would be terminated as the tribe’s tribal counsel if the tribal council members elected in the May 2007 election assumed control of the government. Luckerman acknowledged that he would ‘be out of a job’ if (they) were to control the tribal government,” the report said.

Luckerman then told investigators that “the money does not matter to him, but rather he represents the Micmacs, and other tribes, because he ‘believes in this stuff’ and wants to help the tribes,” the report states.

The new petition drive is the third attempt in two months to hold elections. An April 5 nominations meeting failed for a lack of a quorum. Jewell and others said that the Higgins government didn’t notify all tribal members of the meeting, but only those who supported the seated government.

Higgins has denied that claim.

In an April 17 letter to members, Higgins said the council rejected an April 5 petition seeking another nominations meeting, and decided instead to stay in office “until the next election cycle in 2011.”

Jewell said Higgins’s claim that the bylaws do not allow a second nomination meeting is contradicted by the fact that additional meetings have occurred in the past, even following the May 2007 elections dispute.

Higgins could not be reached for additional comment.

Tribal council member Lesa Bennett commented by e-mail.

Council members Margaret Johnson, Catherine Sabine and Vickie Zetterman did not return calls seeking comments. Council members Sue Blanchard, Fred Peter Paul and Mary Sanipass could not be reached by phone.

Tribal members have asked Keel to rescind his “Opinion Letter,” but that can’t happen without a run through the BIA’s bureaucratic maze.

“That would require a review of all the circumstances surrounding it, and it would have to be after further discussion with the assistant secretary for Indian affairs and the director,” Keel, Choctaw-Chickasaw, said. “But my bottom line is I encourage elections. I’ve always done that in my conversations and my letters to the tribe and with my discussions with any tribal members. They’ve got to have an election.”

The BIA is now aware that Higgins and the seated council rejected the April petition for a new nomination meeting, blocking members’ ability to move an election forward.

“It is a dilemma and from our point of view that’s something I’ll have to discuss with the assistant secretary. But every tribal member is just going to have to push for an election and that means across the board, no matter who they support. They’ve got to have it if they’re going to exercise and develop their sovereignty. They’ve got to do it themselves. That’s the best way,” Keel said.

Wabanaki tribal councilors’ stipends: Passamaquoddy – $25/meeting; $50/joint council meeting (about three times per year)

Penobscot – $7/hour (about $30 – $35 per meeting)

Maliseet – $75/meeting

Micmac – $400/meeting

The IG’s office did not investigate an allegation that various tribal governments since 2000 have misappropriated funds. Keel said such allegations are common during disputes.

“I tell them, ‘here’s the IG’s number. It’s an 800 number. ((800) 424-5081).’ That’s really the only venue and we encourage people who have well-founded allegations to contact the IG.”

Rick Getchell, a former chief, is among those who continue to allege the misuse of funds. He said everything was in good fiscal order when he left office in 1999. He said tribal members need their rights back so they can move forward.

“The community needs to have the right to go to their meetings and take care of their business. The attorney needs to be out of the situation – what business does he have at all in anything?” Getchell said, reiterating several members’ remarks that Luckerman maintains a stranglehold of control over Higgins and the council.

The BIA could play a helpful role “by picking someone who’s unbiased from a different department, like the Department of Justice, and have them oversee our electoral process. Let them send out the nomination notice, set the date, open and chair the meeting – our bylaws allow anyone in the world to chair a meeting – and when the vote comes in, count the ballots with two sheriffs and coordinate that using our governing documents. That would take away any allegations of wrong doing and end all of this,” Getchell said.

In another development, Paul Bisulca, Penobscot, the chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, has offered to facilitate a meeting between Higgins and Carlton for a discussion to reach resolution of the May 2007 Micmac election dispute.

“I also offered to assist in finding someone else if they chose not to accept my offer. I am doing this outreach as an individual and not in my capacity as chair of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission. Unfortunately, I cannot discuss the details of our conversations.”