By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Fort Belknap Indian Community has issued a statement denouncing the Blaine County Commission's decision to appeal a court ruling that said the county's former commissioner election system violated American Indian voting rights.
"It looks like it's turning into a racial issue when it shouldn't be," Darrell Martin, president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community, said today. "When 45 percent of the population is Native American, they should have a say in there."
The commission Friday approved appealing a 2002 decision by U.S. District Judge Philip Pro to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Commissioners Art Kleinjan and Don Swenson voted to appeal the decision, and Commissioner Dolores Plumage voted against the appeal. Plumage is the county's first Native American commissioner, and was elected after Pro's decision forced the county to create three new commission districts, one with a Native American majority, and end at-large voting for commissioners.
The county commissioners could not be reached for comment this morning.
The U.S. Department of Justice sued the county in 1999, saying its at-large commissioner election system violated Indian voting rights. In that system, all voters in the county can vote in every commissioner election.
The county, represented by Colorado-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, lost an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Mountain States is representing the county in the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kleinjan and Swenson have said in past interviews that federal interference in the county election process is wrong. Swenson said state law requires at-large election of county commissioners.
Swenson said he represents every person in the county, not just people from his district. Allowing everyone in the county to vote in each county commission race is appropriate, he said.
Martin said people on the reservation don't always benefit from the commission's actions. Many county functions, such as road repair, generally stop at the reservation boundary.
"Not all of it is shared across the board," Martin said.
Martin said state law doesn't apply well to every county. Some counties might operate well with at-large elections, but Blaine County needs a different system.
"I think every county should be looked at individually," Martin said. "It's like cookie cutting, rubber stamping, and you can't do that. It's not a perfect world."
The press release said the commission's decision to appeal confirms Pro's conclusion that Indians were discriminated against, and wastes Blaine County money on a slim chance the Supreme Court will hear the case.
Swenson said filing the appeal will cost the county about $3,000 to $5,000, and will cost an estimated $15,000 to $20,000 more if the court hears the case.
"The Blaine County Commission ignored pleas from members of the Indian community in Blaine County to put the issue to rest," the statement said. " this decision to continue on with an appeal is but the latest in a series of divisive, short-sighted decisions which only affirm the merit of the federal judge's conclusions that racism has kept Indian people in Blaine County from holding office."