By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
When John "Chance" Houle ran for chairman of the Rocky Boy tribal council, he promised change. Since he began his term a week after the Nov. 2 election, he has delivered.
Houle has overseen the layoff of five staff members to cut costs, has reprimanded or suspended several other staffers for tardiness, has cut back the council's budget for travel and utilities - handing out phone cards to department heads rather than maintain a costly long-distance service - and has pursued contacts he hopes will help promote economic development.
Houle, a council member for two years, defeated incumbent chair Alvin Windy Boy Sr. 727-515 in the Nov. 2 general election.
"We wish we were hiring 20, not cutting off five," Houle said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Billings, where he and other council members are attending a BIA orientation session.
In a new chairman's newsletter Houle started, he said the tribal council - officially named the Chippewa Cree Business Committee - needs to operate like a business and make money, not lose it.
Houle has also made three trips in one month, even after acknowledging that the people on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation want to see their council and chairman at home more. The difference, Houle said, is that he is delivering frequent reports on the purpose of his trips and requiring council members and department heads to do the same.
"Before, it was just a free-for-all. My first two years (on the council) we didn't know where everybody was," he said.
Travel also has to be approved by the board that governs the department of the person traveling, and Houle is requiring department heads to check in every day, he said.
While at home, Houle has focused on restructuring the budget, which he says will result in a $500,000 surplus this year. Half of that money will go to repaying debts, the other half Houle said he hopes can be invested.
"Our major goal in this first year: When we start off next Oct. 1, all our bills are paid and we have some excess dollars," he said.
Houle has set what he said is a new expectation for the weekly meetings of department heads. The department heads oversee all aspects of tribal life including, housing and health. Houle said he demands that their meetings discuss strategy.
"Historically it's been a gripe session," he said.
Houle hopes to build on a project begun during the previous administration - investment in a gaming device that may be manufactured on the reservation.
He and the council are looking into the possibility of building an ethanol plant.
The idea is new, in its "infant stages," Houle said, but he's is excited.
"This is going to have a huge, huge impact, not just on our reservation, but north-central Montana," he said.
Houle also has contacted lawyer Harold A. Mounteau, an enrolled member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe. Mounteau handles gaming laws and Houle said the tribe has consulted him about the legal aspects of enlarging the Rocky Boy casino.
He's sought help from Bob Swan, founder of RJS Associates, who he said has an excellent record in obtaining grants.
According to his newsletter, Houle traveled to Seattle for a meeting on self-governance that addressed the tribe's seven years of deficits.
He said the tribe has at times been operating with a budget in excess of $3 million when the tribe only has $2.2 million coming in each year.
Next, Houle traveled to Helena to meet with Gov.-elect Brian Schweitzer's transition team as well as sit in on a Montana/Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council meeting.
"We're getting out of the habit of sending seven or eight guys to the same meeting," Houle said.
But this week and next, Houle and seven of the eight council members are attending an orientation and meeting in Billings with the Rocky Mountain regional director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Houle said it is an important trip for the new council members and each one will be required to give his own report about it.
Houle said he earns $80,000 as tribal chairman. The vice chair earns $75,000, and council members earn $70,000, he said.