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Santee casino changes management

SANTEE, Neb. - With the emergence of new leadership on the Santee Tribal Council, came a change in management at the tribe's Ohiya Casino.

Thelma Thomas, who has been casino manager for the past several years, vacated her post after winning a council seat. She was required to remove herself from day-to-day operations because sitting on the council and managing the casino was a conflict of interest according to the tribe's bylaws.

Robert Whipple, an accountant, and personnel manager Clarence Bickerstaff Jr. were appointed co-managers. Both said they hope a rule change will allow their former boss to come back.

Tribal Chairman Roger Trudell said the tribe is considering changing the rules to allow Thomas to return to her job, adding she has managed to hold the casino together despite bitter court battles and lobbying efforts against tribal gaming in Nebraska.

Trudell said the requirement, geared to prevent a conflict of interest, was an unfair penalty for an employee who had done an excellent job of overseeing the tribe's lone business enterprise. He said the rules concerning employment and holding council positions were adopted to mirror those of larger tribes with much larger business interests.

The newly-elected Thomas finds herself in a unique position. She is more than likely to be chosen to fill the shoes of former Santee Tribal Chairman Arthur "Butch" Denny as a representative on the Nebraska Indian Affairs Commission. Denny suggested she was a likely candidate during a recent meeting in Lincoln between the state's four tribes and two Nebraska state senators discussing gaming legislation.

Denny indicated he had accepted a job in California so his seat would soon be vacant.

Thomas said she finds herself preparing for a key role in assisting tribes with their gaming interests as the state's unicameral Legislature begins to debate gaming on its reservations. Thomas brings the experience of operating a casino and successes the venture brought to casino workers who would be jobless or required to drive long distances for employment.

Whipple began working at the casino four years ago. He worked an assortment of construction jobs before starting as a security guard at the casino. The Santee High School graduate said he was between jobs when he was encouraged to apply for the casino job.

The change gave him a more stable occupation, fewer hours on the road commuting and more family time, he said.

"It helped me find a stable job here. Otherwise, I couldn't get a job without driving at least 45 minutes to an hour away," Whipple said. "It has helped my wife and our four children and helped me find some financial stability."

The road for Bickerstaff was anything, but easy. The co-manager, who continues his duties as a personnel director, said he was grateful for the chance the casino gave him.

He had worked a series of odd jobs in the area and was dealing with a severe alcohol problem, but the offer of a job as a security officer changed his life, he said.

"It turned my life around. I used to be a heavy drinker. I realized there were better things in life. I have a brighter outlook on life, said Bickerstaff, father of an 8-year-old daughter.

"It has helped me with home ownership, cars and decent furniture," he said. "If it wasn't for the casino, I couldn't get a job here. I like helping the community and helping people. I can turn around and give back to the community."

Bickerstaff, who was reared by his grandmother in Omaha, said the casino helped him regain his self-esteem and begin to make plans for his daughter. "I want her to have more than I had."

Still, he said he hopes the council will revise the bylaws allowing his former boss to return.

Thomas said she is more than willing to take her leadership role despite the pay cut. Unlike many other tribal governments, Santee council positions are not salaried positions.

It was only recently the tribal council raised its pay to about $100 per meeting, Trudell said.

The conflict of interest rule, he explained, was part of a set of rules adopted in bylaws patterned after those of a larger tribe with more diverse economic interests. They were approved hastily, Trudell said, without consideration of how they might apply to a much smaller tribe.

Trudell said he doesn't want to see tribal leadership penalized for participation and willingness to assume leadership roles because the tribe needs strong leadership to take it to the next level of self-sufficiency and economic development.

Already filling Thomas' time will be a proposal by Sen. DiAnna Schimek of Lincoln for introduction of a constitutional amendment allowing voters to decide on the gaming issue. Schimek plans to introduce the measure Jan. 3 - the first day of the session. If the proposal is approved this session, it would appear on the 2002 fall ballot.

A similar proposal was stymied in the General Affairs Committee last year. Thomas and other tribal representatives will select a lobbyist to help the tribes move forward with their own lobbying efforts.