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Southern Ute Tribal Chairman Resigns at Council's Request

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Southern Ute Tribal Chairman Matthew Box has resigned as requested by the Tribal Council. He initially declined to do so because, he said, the request did not follow tribal law. That was his position early in the week and, apparently, as of February 9. A day later, however, he resigned and the Tribal Council accepted his resignation February 11.

The council appointed Jimmy R. Newton Jr. acting chairman and called for a special election April 12 to fill Box’s vacancy. Newton said in a press release that the council appreciated Box’s decision to resign in the best interests of the tribe, which “has always been a leader of Indian country and the nation as a whole.”

Box’s decision marked a week highlighted by allegations of flawed personnel policies and unpopular decisions and a day, February 10, when Box apparently stayed in his office while the Tribal Council held a meeting that was unofficial because Box had suspended the council’s presiding vice-chairman.

Box’s departure was to have been discussed at the meeting for which a written removal notice had been prepared.

Then it was rumored Box would resign at 5 p.m.—an hour that apparently came and went that day without his appearance.

Not only did Box not resign, but he reinstated his controversial executive officer, Johnny Valdez, who agreed to serve without pay, according to what was described as an exclusive interview with the Pine River Times, a publication from a community near Box’s residence. It is also near Ignacio, the tribal headquarters in southwestern Colorado.

In a series of events, tribal members February 9 decided to present Box the written notice for his removal February 10 and an ad hoc committee was formed to ensure follow-up of personnel and other complaints.

Earlier in the week, Box had turned down their verbal request that he resign, telling the Times “there are procedures to remove me.”

Had Box accepted the written removal notice, “At the end of 10 days, he would go back in front of the tribal council to explain the arguments against his personnel policy,” said Richard Jefferson, a leading dissident, who cited “off-the-wall” firings or forced departures. A cultural director, tribal co-executive officer and two tribal secretaries are among employees who are said to have left in recent weeks.

Valdez resigned or was fired without offering a reason, but he had been under fire from critics for his manner: “He coerces, intimidates and degrades Indian and non-Indian employees,” Jefferson said. “If he doesn’t like you, he’ll get rid of you. And the chairman has given him complete discretion.”

Valdez has been a lightning rod for the criticism of his administration, Box told the Times, but, realizing it was important for the stability of the tribe to have an executive officer, he asked Valdez to return without pay.

The charges against Box brought by tribal members do not include allegations of fiscal wrongdoing, but instead focus on ill-advised personnel actions, including retaliatory or questionable firings and a breach of trust in tribal administration, said Jefferson, who spearheaded an earlier recall effort.

“Box calls his critics ‘agitators,’ and says they are upset that he and Valdez have tried for two years to revise tribal codes and policies, which he said had been sitting on a shelf being ignored for several years, if not decades,” the Times said.

Box survived a recall Dec. 3, 2010, when not enough voters showed up for the election to be valid, a low turnout some attributed to Box’s repeated pleas over tribal radio for those who supported him to stay away from the polls. Another recall cannot be held for a year, said Box, whose term as chairman is up in November.

After the failed recall, Jefferson and others were concerned about retaliatory firings, even though Box in an official statement said he asked for blessings “for all who supported me and those who didn’t.”

Andrea Taylor, the Southern Ute public information officer, said she could not discuss personnel matters and was waiting for an official statement from Box, who customarily avoids comment. “We have no comment, no information, we haven’t seen a letter from Mr. Box—a lot of rumors are floating around,” she said February 10.

The 1,400-member tribe is among the nation’s wealthiest, with vast coal and gas reserves and real estate holdings across the nation. Some of Box’s critics earlier charged that the tribe’s Growth Fund had “lost millions of dollars in limited liability corporations.”

Tribal employees reportedly were placed on administrative leave February 11, so Box ��effectively shut the government down,” Jefferson said.