Ballot challenge postpones CTUIR swearing-in ceremony
By Wil Phinney of the CUJ
(Posted Nov. 30, 2015 Updated 6:00 PM)
MISSION – A challenge to absentee ballot returns may have placed in question the 2015 Election, and has postponed the Dec. 2 swearing-in ceremony for eight people elected in November by voters on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
At the Nov. 17 election, voters chose three new Board of Trustees (BOT) officers and one new at-large BOT member, replacing nearly half the official leadership for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR).
Gary Burke and Alan Crawford were retained as chairmen of the BOT and General Council, respectively.
However, voters chose Jeremy Wolf over Leo Stewart for BOT vice-chairman; David Close over four other candidates for secretary; and Rosenda Shippentower over Aaron Hines for treasurer. They also picked newcomer Aaron Ashley to join incumbents Justin Quaempts, Woodrow Star and Armand Minthorn as at-large BOT members.
In accordance with the Election code, At-large candidate Ellen Taylor filed a dispute with the Election Commission over an absentee ballot that was marked by the Post Office as “return to sender” and was never counted. (Taylor finished sixth in a race for four at-large positions.)
Taylor and other tribal members, including Leila Spencer, provided testimony at a public hearing with the Election Commission. Because it was not completed by 4 p.m., the hearing was continued until Dec. 3 – the day after the swearing-in ceremony was to occur.
The current BOT will continue in their policy-making role until the election issues can be resolved.
The Commission was scheduled to issue a written decision within three working days of their Dec. 3 meeting as required by the Election Code.
In the event Taylor is dissatisfied with the Commission’s decision, she may appeal the decision to the Tribal Court, according to the Election Code.
Taylor did not attend the BOT meeting in Tribal session Nov. 30, but Spencer and others did. The BOT voted 4-2 to postpone the swearing-in until issues with the challenge could be resolved.
The four members who voted to delay the swearing-in were Leo Stewart, defeated in his bid to retain his seat as vice-chairman; Kat Brigham, who left her secretary position and lost in a run for BOT chairman; Alan Crawford, re-elected General Council chairman; and Bob Shippentower, who chose not to run for the BOT but ran unsuccessfully as a write-in candidate for GC chair. Voting against the postponement were Armand Minthorn and Woodrow Star, both re-elected as at-large BOT members. At-large member Justin Quaempts, who received the most votes in any contested race, and Aaron Hines, who failed to defend his treasurer seat, walked out of the chambers and did not vote.
Minthorn used an expletive to describe the vote. He said tribal attorneys told the BOT the swearing-in ceremony could move forward even while the election issue was being resolved.
“Our attorney said it would be okay to proceed because the Election Commission delegates that authority and did what it was supposed to do,” Minthorn said.
Kat Brigham said she is “pretty sure” that the issue will end up in Tribal Court, which would mean Taylor won’t be satisfied with the Election Commission’s decision.
The BOT made its decision, Brigham said, based on the absentee ballot issue, and on the fact that the election had not been officially certified in accordance of the Election Code with signatures of General Council Chairman Crawford and GC Secretary Shawna Gavin.
“The BOT did not want to interfere with an election, but at the same time we want to give people the opportunity to vote,” Brigham said.
Brigham said she voted to postpone the swearing-in “because some mistakes were made in the election process,” not the least of which was by the U.S. Postal Service in closing the Tribes’ Post Office box even though its rent had been paid in April.
Brigham said the BOT was “uncomfortable” with the decision, but wanted something in place so that elections can run more smoothly by 2017.
Woodrow Star, who was re-elected as an at-large BOT member, chalked it up to “politics at work.”
“Some BOT members felt they were speaking for their constituency,” he said. “We had over 600 voters and only three or four people to my knowledge saying they were speaking out for a large unknown number of people who have some question about uncounted votes.”
That handful of people, Star said, was able to “convince four BOT members to hold off the swearing-in ceremony pending a possible Tribal Court decision.”
Star said Spencer, who did not file the official dispute with the Election Commission, has used terminology like “a lot” to quantify the number of tribal members whose ballots were returned.
At any rate, Star said, the votes are there and he expects the election will stand as is.
“This will make no difference in the long run, but it may help clarify a few points of contention in the Election Code,” he said. “This could have been handled differently and it may help the new Board address this in the future.”