Housing conflict, rumors fuel build-up to recall petition

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The story of a petition that was dismissed at a January hearing is a story with tentacles that reach in several directions at the Fond du Lac Reservation. The petition charged Chairwoman Karen Diver with malfeasance, dereliction of duty and non-compliance with constitutional/bylaw provisions.

The matter got its start following shakeups in the FDL housing department last summer. Dissatisfaction with that outcome inspired some Band Members to gather petition signatures in an effort to oust Diver.

This story will examine a few reasons for that dissatisfaction originating with the reservation’s housing shortage. Additionally, it will explain aspects of the petition process.

First, know that the use of petitions to remove RBC members is not new at Fond du Lac. However, this was the first time that the process went as far as the hearing presided over by FDL Band Member Suzanne Ojibway Townsend.

Origins

The current wave of anger may have its roots in actions taken last summer concerning a housing matter. A Band Member who was employed at the Black Bear Casino paid a set amount of rent based on her income. She lost her job, said she became incapacitated, and did not notify the Housing Division that her rental amount should have been reduced. For two years her rent continued to accrue at the former rate; eventually, the Housing Division proceeded with an eviction notice. The woman complained to the RBC.

That led the RBC to pass an amended rule that allows incapacitated Band members to be retroactively recertified at a more appropriate rate. The woman’s arrears were reduced but not eliminated.

In the eyes of some Band Members, however, the woman was unfairly enriched. At an open meeting at the Tribal Center last summer, RBC Secretary Treasurer Ferdinand Martineau said that the remedy used for that particular case would apply to any Band Member who came forward with similar circumstances. Those circumstances would be the inability to notify housing authorities about a recertification.

A rumor began that the amount “forgiven” was $18,000. At about the same time, rumors began that Karen Diver made unilateral decisions without the input or knowledge of her fellow RBC members.

Due to the shortage of homes, housing is a long-standing lightening rod at Fond du Lac. Lines were drawn in the sand, fueled by the “$18,000 gift.” Before long the 244-signature petition was presented to the RBC.

The process

The petition process offered its own lessons. Townsend acted as hearing officer — the decision making body was the RBC. Townsend, an arbitrator and judge for 25 years, has overseen many hearings. She said in a telephone interview from Oregon that she had never presided over a recall petition hearing. They’re very rare.

Townsend said that a petition has to stand on its own, complete with attached documentation supporting the charges. The hearing was not the place for further arguments for or against the allegations. The petition alleged serious charges, but no proof was attached.

Article X of the MCT Constitution states that the RBC can remove a member by a two-thirds vote for very serious infractions. (Examples could be theft or the destruction of property.)

Band members are free to allege charges against an elected official through a petition containing signatures from 20 percent of the resident eligible voters. The RBC then notifies the accused of the charges, and sets a hearing date. At that hearing, the “accused shall be given opportunity to call witnesses and present evidence in his behalf.”

About 200 people attended the January hearing that was open to Band Members only. In her statement to the charges, Diver said the allegations were “broad and provide no specific examples of how I may have been derelict or malfeasant…at no time during my term have I acted in violation of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Constitution…”

She said that her management style includes the entire council in important decisions, adding that policy and personnel actions taken to date had the “complete agreement of all five members of the Reservation Business Committee.” She acknowledged that the hearing would not end the misinformation and animosity spreading at FDL.

Townsend said that petitions should be reserved for serious malfeasance, rather than for unpopular decisions.

“As a practical matter, the process is very stressful for members of the RBC whether they are the subject of the petition or not,” she said. “Ultimately this takes time from the things they would otherwise do.”

She said that the people who attended the hearing had strong feelings both ways, but conducted themselves very well.

“They may have had other expectations when they arrived and heard the purpose for the hearing and what they would be allowed and not allowed to do,” she said. Ultimately, however, she said that those in attendance were respectful of the process.

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