Member says she should be chief

Posted May 27, 2009, at 9:40 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:47 a.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Marilyn Carlton, a member of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, contends she was elected chief of the band during the tribal government election in May 2007.

Two years later, she still does not hold the position because of disagreements about the election’s validity. The contested election subsequently sparked a federal investigation that failed to resolve the dispute.

The disagreement surfaced after Carlton defeated Victoria Higgins, who was acting chief at the time, by a vote of 107-81, according to an investigative report issued in August 2008 by the U.S. Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General. Julia Miller was elected as vice chief.

Immediately after the election, at least four petitions challenging the validity of the election were submitted to the tribal government’s election committee. Among the challenges, according to the inspector general report, was the claim that Miller was not of Micmac blood. The election committee “unanimously” voted to validate the election, according to testimony given to inspector general investigators.

But the challenges raised in the petitions spurred the convening of an Elders Council, in accordance with tribal government bylaws, to review the challenges.

The Elders Council, which consisted of eight tribal members, invalidated the election.

In the absence of a valid election, neither Carlton nor a new Tribal Council were seated, and Higgins remained the acting tribal chief and the incumbent members of the council retained their seats.

In August 2007, according to a document provided to inspector general investigators, the Tribal Council removed the previous chief, William Phillips, and Vice Chief Steven Phillips, who were unable to complete their terms due to illness, and “by written ballots, voted Victoria Higgins as Micmac Tribal Chief and Fred Peter Paul as Vice Chief.”

Two years later, a subsequent election has not yet been held and Higgins remains tribal chief.

Complex history

The challenge to the May 2007 election was not unique. The Aroostook Band of Micmacs, with about 1,000 members living mainly on tribal lands in various locations in eastern Aroostook County, were formally recognized by the federal government in November 1991 after a legal struggle stemming from the fact that they were not recognized under the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980.

The tribe’s bylaws as recognized by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs provide for tribal elections to be held every two years, when a chief, vice chief and nine council members are elected to lead the tribe. If petitions challenging the election are submitted, they must go before an Elders Council to decide the outcome.

The elections of 2001, 2003 and 2005 also had been challenged. The results of those elections were not overturned, however, and William Phillips was elected chief in 2005. Then in August 2006, Phillips named Higgins acting chief.

The inspector general report indicates that the tribe’s bylaws do not provide for that sort of delegation of authority, stating: “The By-Laws only allow for a Vice Chief to assume the duties of the Chief in the case of the Chief’s inability to perform his duties, and Higgins was not the Vice Chief.”

The next election was the contested one of May 2007, in which Carlton received the majority of votes. But since the Elders Council overturned the results and no subsequent election has been held, Higgins remains chief, never having been formally elected to the position.

Complicating matters further, Carlton told the Bangor Daily News in an interview earlier this month that she did not believe the Elders Council that invalidated the election really constituted an Elders Council. Eight members — out of an official 143 elders on the tribal rolls, 68 of whom live within Aroostook County, according to the inspector general report — signed off on the invalidation of the election. But Carlton said that of those eight elders, some were losing candidates for office during the election.

The inspector general corroborated Carlton’s claim, stating that the Elders Council that invalidated the 2007 election was “100 percent conflicted.” One of the council members, for example, was the husband of a 2005 Tribal Council member voted out of office in the election. Others on the council were found to have lost after running during the 2007 election. Another member appeared to have been unaware of the contents of the document she signed off on that invalidated the election.

Carlton also claimed that not all elders were notified of the meeting to review the challenges, and it was only those eight who eventually gathered.

Carlton said she believes the band has between 160 and 170 elders. Higgins told the inspector general investigators that no group of individuals is formally recognized as the Elders Council.

Snowe requests probe

The controversy continued, and two more Elders Councils convened to try to resolve the issue, one in September 2007 and another in January 2008. Those two councils both attempted to overturn the May 2007 council’s invalidation, but were unsuccessful because the Bureau of Indian Affairs, meanwhile, upheld the May 2007 invalidation by arguing that the election and the elders’ ruling were internal tribal matters over which the Bureau of Indian Affairs had no jurisdiction.

Franklin Keel, the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Eastern Region director, also told the tribe’s attorney, Douglas Luckerman, in a letter that “It appears that Elders Council 2 acted beyond any authority given an Elders Council under Micmac Tribal By-Laws. As such, their action cannot be recognized,” according to the inspector gen-eral report.

In January 2008, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, at the request of Carlton, who charged that an improper relationship had developed between Keel and Luckerman, asked the inspector general to investigate the matter.

After meetings with Carlton, Snowe’s staff and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal officials, efforts were made toward clarifying the tribe’s bylaws regarding the structure and operating procedures for the Elders Council. Included was an offer of a $55,000 grant from the Department of the Interior to facilitate the work neces-sary to amend the tribe’s bylaws.

The inspector general investigation report, issued in August 2008, concluded that no improper relationship existed between Keel and Luckerman, but that the Elders Council of May 2007 was 100 percent conflicted.

Luckerman told the Bangor Daily News this month that in his view the tribe is abiding by its bylaws and rules.

“From the beginning, this should have been handled as an internal matter for the tribe,” he said. “For some members to go outside the tribe and not follow the bylaws just because they don’t like the results is wrong.”

“The tribe has done nothing wrong,” Luckerman said. “It is that simple. The election process has run its course and the laws have been met.”

Neither Keel nor Higgins responded to the BDN’s requests for comment.

Efforts toward a new vote

Keel told the inspector general investigators in 2008 that he believed the Micmacs needed to hold elections as soon as possible to resolve the controversy.

Carlton, in contrast, said she believes the Bureau of Indian Affairs is allowing an illegal government to maintain its seat.

“All that we want is a new election,” she said. “The tribe has been waiting since 2007 for an election. We have waited 25 months for that.”

Luckerman said that two nominating meetings have been held this spring in order to facilitate another election. He said the first meeting resulted in so much tension that a scuffle broke out before everyone left, and the second meeting resulted in the lack of a quorum.

Carlton said that a nominating meeting was held in early April, in hopes of gathering all of the tribe together so that a new election could be held. But not everyone knew about the meeting, she said, and it was never called to order because a quorum was not established.

“We were short 12 people,” Carlton said.

The meeting broke up more than an hour earlier than scheduled, she said, despite efforts by some of those attending to contact more members to establish a quorum. She contended that a quorum could have been established if the meeting had not adjourned early.

Luckerman maintained that the tribe’s rules have been adhered to and the process will lead to another election.

“The 2005 Tribal Council is not endlessly trying to stay in power, and the facts bear it out,” he said.

The inspector general report was sent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for “any action deemed appropriate.”

A representative from Snowe’s office would not comment this month on any possible future action and would say only that the inspector general report “speaks for itself.”

In the absence of any intervention by the federal government, which Keel has indicated would be inappropriate, or a successful effort by tribal members to organize an election this year, the next regularly scheduled election will be in 2011.

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