Dear Band Members,
Aaniin. September was a busy month, including many meetings with Band Members, meetings in Washington D.C. with the Departments of Interior and Justice, and also with state officials on many matters. Band Assembly and I also met recently to address many issues, but the most pressing issue before us right now is the opiate crisis.
Band member families speak to me every day about the devastating impact drugs have had on their lives and their family. The opiate crisis has become magnified over the past 15 months since Mille Lacs County revoked our law enforcement agreement.
By now, many Band Members have heard about Governor Dayton’s September 18 letter to Mille Lacs County and the Mille Lacs Band, in which he called the county’s refusal to recognize the police authority of our tribal officers as “dangerously irresponsible” and “morally indefensible.” The Governor gave Mille Lacs County an ultimatum: Either the County re- signs our old 2008 Law Enforcement Agreement by September 29, or the State will enter into an agreement with the Band through the State Patrol and take other necessary actions. That letter is reprinted in this edition.
The day after the Governor’s letter arrived, Band Assembly and I snapped into action. We re-signed the 2008 agreement, passed it again, and sent it to the County and the Governor. Now the ball is in the County’s court. By the time this paper lands in your mail boxes, we will know the outcome of the September 29 deadline. At this time, it would appear the County has no intentions of signing the 2008 agreement. It remains to be seen how this issue will end, but our team is working non-stop on this matter.
Regardless of what happens after September 29, I want Band Members to know we have done and will continue doing everything we can to find a solution with the County. The challenge is that Mille Lacs County officials have consistently put politics ahead of public safety. Prior to the county ending our agreement, we had 32 police officers in comparison to the County’s 22 deputies. Our officers were 2/3 of the police force in this county, and it did not cost the County one dime.
Last summer, after the Philando Castile shooting in St. Paul, the federal mediator working with St. Paul came up to the reservation and invited us and the county to enter into federal mediation. We immediately agreed. The County flat out refused. Later in the summer, Governor Dayton came up to visit. He offered state mediation. We immediately agreed. Weeks later, the county very reluctantly agreed.
We spent months over the winter in mediation. But the county continued to request that we give up many of our inherent sovereign powers, and allow the county almost total control over our police. One example of a demand they made: They wanted us to agree that we would not have any communication with the federal government about law enforcement without first notifying Mille Lacs County and including them. Almost every Tribe in Minnesota has a law enforcement agreement with their county, but we know of no other tribe that has had to make those kind of ridiculous concessions in order to get a law enforcement agreement.
The bottom line is that our police should be arresting and handcuffing the drug dealers – instead, county officials are handcuffing our officers from doing their job, threatening to arrest them for impersonating police officers if they enforce criminal law. We will keep Band Members updated on any new developments.
On a related note, a few weeks ago, Commissioner Rebecca St. Germaine and I attended the White House Opiate Summit for tribal leaders. We developed recommendations on ways the White House could support to assist us with this opiate crisis. The President did not attend, but many of his staff attended in addition to Cabinet members. When invited to speak, I requested more support for health services and prevention, funding for Narcan; and informed White House staff how Mille Lacs County is preventing our tribal police from doing their jobs.
In other developments, the Band was forced to severely cut back our program budgets this year to ensure per capita payments would not need to be immediately reduced. While our enrollment is increasing, like most other tribes, our casino revenues are decreasing.
One cut that many Band Members have talked with me about involves the recent Secretarial Order issued by Secretary-Treasurer Beaulieu that cut off our Scholarship Program for descendant Band Members. In many cases, it is the Band Member parent that is experiencing the hardship and needing to search for immediate help via savings or parent loans. Since the decision came after many students had already begun their college academic year, we are hearing that several students might have to withdraw from college or already have.
The Band Assembly and I discussed this issue at a joint meeting last week. At the request of many Band Members, I have requested that this issue be addressed again, because I don’t believe this was the only option we had in order to balance the budget. There are significant state and federal scholarship funds available to enrolled tribal members in Minnesota, and several colleges and universities across the country provide tuition remission for enrolled tribal members.
In fact, last spring, the Administrative Policy Board did propose to Band Assembly that First-Generation descendants would continue to be eligible, but only if they applied with their parent’s home Reservation first, must permanently reside in Minnesota while attending college, and only after demonstrating unmet need. Further, all students – including enrolled tribal members – would be required to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as a condition of being eligible for our Band scholarship. Too often, enrolled Band students are not applying for other scholarships they are eligible to receive and relying exclusively on the Band scholarship. This proposal was sent to the Legislative Branch on May 12, but rejected. At the request of Band Members, that policy is available for review on the Chief Executive Office Facebook page.
If our students were required to apply for other state and federal aid first, it is likely that Band students would obtain much more additional support, requiring less dependency on Band Scholarship money. If our Scholarship program were only accessed after other outside scholarships have been secured, this could result in significant savings for more students to access the funding. I have asked that the elected officials re-visit this issue, and hope to work cooperatively to find a better solution.
Another proposal from the Secretary-Treasurer on September 15 was the creation of a Waste, Fraud and Abuse office, which is described as an entity to enforce the Band Ethics Code. I support the creation of such an office, but I strongly believe that in order to be credible, it must be an independent entity and not housed within either the Legislative or Executive Branch. This is the only way to ensure objectivity in investigating complaints against not just employees, but all appointed officials, elected officials and their staff.
Additionally, while the Code of Ethics currently states that it applies to staff of the Chief Executive, it does not state that it applies to Legislative staff. So one important amendment is that Legislative staff must be added to the list of those required to adhere to the Code of Ethics.
Another change I would like to see is a requirement that all elected officials and their staff submit to periodic random drug testing, to ensure we are setting an example for the community and living up to our statements about a drug-free workplace (staff in my office are drug-tested). I also have proposed that the Ethics Code be amended to hold appointed officials, elected officials and their staff accountable for respectful behavior on social media. I believe that we should be held to a higher standard than other employees when it comes to how we interact with others on social media — especially other Band Members. We and our staff represent the Band 24/7, not just while at work.
Finally, after the Commissioner of Administration was made aware of concerning information involving management of the Department of Labor, I immediately requested that the Solicitor General conduct an investigation. The Band Assembly and I discussed this matter recently as well, and they will also be hiring a forensic auditing firm to look into this matter. Our goal is to ensure that any deficiencies in this program be immediately addressed.
Despite the challenges facing our community, Band Members came together in many inspiring ways this month. Over 200 Band Members participated in the Smudge Walk to take a stand against drugs. A group of Band Members drove to St. Joseph, Missouri, to watch the solar eclipse, and those of us at home adjourned our meetings to go outside and watch together. By far, the best part of my month was spending a long weekend with 73 Elders on a bus trip to Iowa. While we didn’t make it to the flea market, we had a wonderful time together, and I received an abundance of great feedback and ideas from Elders that have already been acted upon. I hope the new school year is going well for all our students, and hope kids of all ages had a safe and happy Halloween!
Photo: Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin (left), Tribal Police Chief Sara Rice (center) and Executive Branch Legal Counsel Syngen Kanassatega (right) traveled to Washington in September for a tribal opioid summit. They are pictured with James Cason and John Tahsuda from the Department of Interior.