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Stevens: The new NIGC: Improving consultation with tribes and renewing relationships

In June 2010, for the first time in two-and-a-half years, the National Indian Gaming Commission is functioning with a fully appointed commission. As the new commission, Vice Chairwoman Steffani Cochran, Associate Commissioner Dan Little and I are embarking on a journey that will not only challenge us, but tribal leaders as well.

Less than six months ago, my fellow commissioners and I identified and launched four major initiatives on which we will focus our time, energy and resources. This article addresses our first initiative, consultation and relationship building.

President Barack Obama has been clear about this administration’s commitment to regular and meaningful consultation with tribes. We are taking this directive seriously. We will always seek to improve how we consult, communicate and interact with tribes, no matter the challenges. As an agency that deals solely with tribal issues and is funded by tribal dollars, we are dedicated to improving every aspect of the agency so we can better serve tribes by fulfilling our statutory and regulatory obligations.

The commission will perform our statutory responsibilities through ACE: Assistance, Compliance and Enforcement, in that order. This means providing meaningful technical assistance and training, communicating with tribes early in the process if there is a potential compliance issue, and working with tribes to resolve compliance issues voluntarily so enforcement action is taken only when necessary. Respectful communication combined with technical assistance and training serves to ensure compliance with the law and the integrity of the tribal gaming operation.

A strong relationship between NIGC and tribal governments is critical. The commission is tasked with regulating a tribal gaming industry spanning 29 states and more than 200 tribes. In order to fully perform our responsibilities, we are dedicating significant resources to working with tribes to ensure the integrity of the industry. In addition to working with tribes, we will work with other regulatory bodies to promote the integrity of Indian gaming. One regulatory agency alone cannot do this. It must be a collective effort.

This commission strongly supports President Obama’s commitment to engaging in meaningful consultation with tribes. Consequently, we are fashioning new consultation approaches which honor the spirit and intent of Obama’s policy. Each commissioner and the senior staff experienced working on the tribal side of consultation in some form or another with the federal government. We’ve experienced processes that work and know that some consultation processes don’t accomplish their purpose. Tribes have been clear that NIGC’s consultation process needs improvement and the commission acknowledges this critique. Through our commitment to meaningful consultation, we seek to renew strong collaborative relationships with tribes to safeguard the Indian gaming industry.

The “process” of consultation is just as important as the “substance” of consultation. Consultation will be inclusive, it will be collaborative and meaningful, and it will be an ongoing dialogue and exchange. In terms of broad, over-arching policies such as regulatory changes, we will consult in various regions of Indian country utilizing a group discussion format. This format allows for an open exchange of ideas, thoughts, concerns and solutions for all to hear.

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For issues concerning the needs of specific tribes and their operations, we will continue to meet with tribes at their request. For these meetings, we will consult in the most efficient manner. We are currently reviewing our 2004 consultation policy to ensure that it is relevant, timely, workable and respectful. Additionally, as a method to help inform our own consultation policy review process we’re participating in the Department of Interior’s consultation team discussions regarding President Obama’s Nov. 5, 2009 consultation directive. We intend to build better relationships with our sister agencies so tribes are not faced with redundancies.

The changes in our consultation process will mean that we will strive to discuss with tribes the need for regulatory changes prior to drafting such changes. Our intent is that this process will be inclusive and interactive. This means timely notice, candid discussions, and making the most of both tribal resources and ours so that we can create effective policies that ensure the integrity of the industry.

As part of this renewed effort of consultation and improved relationships, the commission published a Notice of Inquiry in the Federal Register Nov. 18, 2010. A NOI is used by many agencies to solicit input from groups prior to drafting regulations. The NOI asks which current regulations need revision, the priority of those revisions and the mechanism by which the revisions should take place. Further, the NOI requests input on what new regulations the agency should consider promulgating to better protect the industry.

We will demonstrate our commitment to consultation and stronger relationships with tribes over the next few months as we develop our regulatory review agenda. Beginning in January, we will embark on a series of eight consultations to listen to what Indian country has to say about our regulatory framework and how we can improve it. The commission will then review all the comments received and finalize a regulatory review agenda that will detail which regulations will be promulgated or revised and in what order.

Moving forward, we firmly believe that meaningful consultation with tribes is critical to fulfilling our vision and the intent of IGRA. Each commissioner shares a common vision for the NIGC: To adhere to principles of good government including transparency to promote agency accountability and fiscal responsibility, to operate consistently to ensure fairness and clarity in the administration of IGRA, and to respect the responsibilities of each sovereign in order to fully promote tribal economic development, self-sufficiency and strong tribal governments.

I recognize that any accomplishments we are fortunate enough to achieve will be a product of how well NIGC and tribal governments communicate with each other. As governments, we must work together. Teamwork and collaboration will be the foundation that will propel us forward in promoting tribal economic development, self-sufficiency and strong tribal governments.

Tracie L. Stevens is chairwoman of the National Indian Gaming Commission. Stevens, a member of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, is the first Native American woman to chair the commission.