Chukchansi: Lewis faction agrees to "clean slate elections" in May, 2015

awileman@sierrastar.comAugust 26, 2014 

In an effort to resolve the on-going tribal council disputes, on Sunday, Aug. 24, the off-site Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians tribal council, led by Chairman Reggie Lewis, held a mediated settlement meeting in hopes of ending the leadership dispute which has lasted since 2011.

In a 20-hour marathon session, held Sunday on tribal grounds, members of the Lewis faction along with members of each previous council dating back to 2010 were invited to participate in an open discussion to decide the best avenue for the tribal councils to regain order and settle all active disputes.

More than 20 current and ex-tribal council members, consisting of a majority of every tribal council since the Dec. 2010 elections, came together during what tribal members called a momentous session to discuss the future of the Chukchansi tribal council.

During the session, those in attendance executed and signed an agreement which established what is being dubbed the "2014 Unification Tribal Council" that will include Reggie Lewis and Nancy Ayala as co-chairs, and Chance Alberta, Tracey Hopkins, Karen Wynn and Nokomis Hernandez as tribal council members.

The newly appointed unification tribal council (faction) will temporarily conduct the ongoing duties of the tribal council until an official council can be voted on during what is being described as a clean slate election set for May, 2015.

Unification tribal council Co-Chair Ayala expressed her approval of the newly appointed unification council and maintains this is in the best interest of all parties involved and more importantly, the tribal members.

"This agreement is a historic act by tribal members and several different groups within the tribe to protect the tribe's future assets for generations to come," said Co-Chair Ayala. "Each member of the 2014 Unity Tribal Council has demonstrated leadership and a commitment to the tribe. Now we begin the effort of rebuilding the tribe's relationships with the community and our business partners."

Ayala says she is "hopeful" that this will settle all disputes and allow the future council, whoever that might be, to get back to doing business and by reverting back to 2010, Ayala believes the tribe can avoid the evolution of disputes that took place following the 2010 elections.

"We are very hopeful it is going to have a positive affect," Ayala said. "It has taken a long time; we have had a lot of things happen over the years since the beginning of the tribe. This is a turning point, we have put our differences aside and reverted back to 2010 before any of the issues arose."

Attorney for the Lewis faction, Richard Verri, made it clear the reason for holding the "clean slate elections" in May would be to allow every tribal member the opportunity to legally qualify under tribal constitution law for their name to be placed on the May ballot.

According to Verri, the tribal constitution ballot eligibility requirements call for candidates to be tribal members, be 18 years of age, and attend eight of the last 12 tribal meetings, held on the fourth Monday of every month before their names can be placed on an official tribal ballet.

According to Verri, and the various previously elected council members, there was no standard way of verifying if each person attended 8 of the last 12 meetings. Therefore the faction decided to wait until enough meetings could elapse to determine whether or not each candidate officially qualifies.

Verri says he is confident that the tribal council is moving in the right direction and believes a clean slate election would be most beneficial to the tribe.

"It's really encouraging to see the tribe moving together to solve their political difference and come to together to resolve the issue," Verri said.

If held, the May elections would put all seven seats on the tribal council up for grabs and would be decided by votes from the 816+ tribal members.

The letter, signed and agreed upon by the 20 tribal members and previously elected council members, mimics a recent agreement set forth by a previously feuding tribe in Northern California called the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians.

Last month the Nomlaki Indians, having similar disputes, set aside their differences and set a date for a new general election to decide f their tribal council.

Disputes between the Chukchansi tribal councils and various factions began in Dec. 2010 when tribal member, Reggie Lewis, questioned the legitimacy of one of that year's elected tribal council members, Harold Hammond Sr. Lewis claimed Hammond was an illegitimate candidate who should have never been placed on the Dec. 2010 ballet.

However, no definite ruling was given and disputes over the legitimacy of future elections and disenrollments have continued over the years.

The controversy created fractures in the tribal council that led to allegations and disagreements between competing councils which has cost the tribe millions in unrecoverable lost revenue and legal fees. Disagreements include financial improprieties, who controls the tribe and disenrollments which include financial help for future generations of Chukchansi Indians.

According to Verri, all factions were invited to participate in Sunday's session and says the Unification Tribal Council will continue to have meeting on tribal grounds and all tribal members are invited to participate.

"We have welcomed the participation of all the factions, all individuals are encouraged to participate and we want to see the democratic nature expressed in this election," Verri said.

However not everyone agreed to the terms.

Boycotting Sunday's meetings was Chairman for the on-site tribal council, Tex McDonald, Lynda Appling (secretary), Vernon King (treasurer), Monica Davis (vice-chair) who claim to be the constitutionally backed tribal council and are said to have in no way acknowledged the legitimacy of the newly adopted Unification Tribal Council.

"Our Tribe has a set of laws for electing the council. That process is orderly and it doesn't include showing up with a raiding party because you don't like the people who have been constitutionally elected or appointed as leaders. It's very clear to me that those who want to raid the office hate the thought of a forensic financial audit – a professional examination of where these deposed leaders spent our Tribe's money. But regardless, the truth is going to come out," Davis said in a statement released Monday.

The McDonald faction continues to claim their on-site legitimacy and says in no way have they agreed to any of the terms of any agreement involving the Lewis faction. Sunday's on-site session, led by the Lewis faction and other previously elected council members, comes a week after an inter-council tribal dispute took place with the temporary suspension of five members of the McDonald faction and days after Madera County Sheriff's Department posted with a mobile command center outside of the tribal offices and casino after receiving word of a possible hostile take over.

Verri and other faction members claim that the McDonald faction has illegally taken control over the tribal offices. Verri claims McDonald's faction continues to violate federal and tribal law by the refusal to acknowledge the Feb. 2014 ruling by the Bureau of Indian Affairs which acknowledged the 2010 tribal council as the governing body for government to government relations.

However the McDonald faction remains confident that they have remained within the law of the constitution and the BIA's ruling does not decide who is in charge of the tribe. Rather McDonald claims the BIA's decision only refers to the federal and tribal governments government-to-government contracts, relations and payments.

"We cannot let a group of rogue expelled leaders simply decide to take over our Tribe," said Appling. "They can bring in their 'hired guns' and out-of-state tribal cops and try to storm this office, but our legally elected Council will continue to fight back. We are determined to do what the people of our Tribe elected us to do – to lead with integrity and to find out where the millions of dollars missing from our Tribe's coffers have gone."

According to Verri and Ayala the May 2015 "clean slate election" will be monitored by a neutral third party and all tribal councils elected since Dec. 2010 have agreed to recognize the results.

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