Havre Daily News
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION - Two Rocky Boy tribal council members said Thursday that raises for tribal employees were never discussed when the council voted to up their own salaries last week.
Council members Rusty Gopher and Ricky Morsette both opposed the raises in a 5-2 vote last week and contradicted statements made Thursday by council chair John "Chance" Houle, who said the 5 percent raise for employees was approved last week.
In an interview Thursday, Houle said the council had preliminarily approved a 5 percent raise for tribal employees and an increase of up to $15,000 for council members.
Houle added that the council, in a Monday meeting, settled on a 5 percent raise for the council and employees alike.
He said that the $15,000 council member Donovan Stump proposed took into account retirement benefits, which employees receive but council members are not eligible for. Houle said the raise for council members was set at 5 percent when they heard from the accounting staff that council salaries already take into account the lack of retirement benefit.
"I don't recall it being mentioned there," Gopher said of the employee raises. In an interview Monday, Gopher said he had opposed the raises for council members because employees had gone without raises for two years.
In an email today, he shared a statement he said was passed to him from an elder: "That the people we serve should be considered first rather than personal gain."
When asked if the 5 percent pay raise for employees came up last week, Morsette also said it hadn't. He said he would not make further comments until a council meeting scheduled for next week.
Houle said Thursday that if two council members didn't know about the raise for employees, it was because they left the room during part of the meeting.
"That's why they need to stay in the meetings," Houle said.
Gopher wrote in an email today that the council held natural resources and roads meetings Sept. 22, as well as the administrative meeting where it discussed raises. He said he and Morsette got up to have a cigarette during one of the day's meetings.
Morsette said Thursday he was there for the entire discussion of pay raises.
Gopher said he'd like to review the tape that was made of the Thursday meeting. "I don't know if they'll let me have it," he added.
Houle said the minutes of the Sept. 22 meeting will show the 5 percent raise was discussed. When asked for the minutes, he said they were not available. The tape made of the meeting would have to be transcribed and the minutesapproved in a later meeting, Houle said.
"The Chippewa Cree Tribal Business Committee met on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2005 for an Administrative meeting. We are pleased to announce a 5% COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) for all employees was approved," Houle wrote in a memo that was displayed in tribal offices this week.
In an interview Tuesday, Houle said the raises discussed last week would not be official until the council voted on them in a council meeting. When asked Thursday how they were made official, he said tribal council chief of staff Richard Sangrey had told him that raises could be passed in an administrative meeting.
Sangrey said today that the administrative committee and the budget committee are one and the same. He said he recently told Houle decisions about raises could be made in budget meetings.
Houle gave a revised figure for the council's salary Thursday.
Council members are paid $75,000, the vice chair $80,000 and the chair $85,000, Houle said. Previously, he said the figures were $5,000 less.
In an interview Monday, council member Donovan Stump, who proposed the council's raise, said the increase he proposed would bring council salaries to $90,000 with $95,000 for the vice chair and $100,000 for the chair.
He did not mention raises for employees.
The raise for council members has upset some community members, as well as Gopher.
Several Rocky Boy residents have contacted the Havre Daily News but did not want to give their names.
"In saying no to the big council pay increase, I thought about other ways the funds can be used," Gopher wrote in an email today. In the winter, many people need help paying for heating, he added.
"But for now we must also consider what's happening with the war and natural disasters to our country and their costs to the national government," Gopher wrote. "Our primary source of income and programs will be seriously effected (sic) by these events and we have to be very careful and diligent on how we use this funding."
Gopher said in an interview Thursday he thought the council had set employee raises to "appease" people.
Tribal employee Suzanne Billy agreed. She said Thursday she wrote a letter to the tribal council this week opposing any raises for council members.
"With the council right now, I think their salaries are high. I didn't have an issue with it until they made an issue of it by making their salaries go higher," Billy said.
Billy said she had heard the council has decided to take a 5 percent increase like other employees, rather than the higher $15,000 increase that was first discussed, but she still opposed their raise.
Billy also disagreed with the justification Houle has given, that other officials, such as the governor and congressional delegates, earn as much and more.
"By golly, that shouldn't even be a comparison," Billy said. "The government of Montana represents 800,000 people. Our leaders represent 6,000. We have a very small land base."
Houle said Thursday council members also are social service workers.
"That's the biggest part of my job," he said, adding that he and other council members frequently give out donations from their own pockets.
Billy said her concern was more general.
"It's not a personal issue with any one individual and any one councilman," Billy said. "It's an issue of finances, accountability and salary scale."
"My biggest issue is I've worked for the tribe for 28 years," Billy added. "I am dissatisfied with the way the tribe sets their salaries as well as gives raises, because there is no rhyme or reason to the way they do it. There is no salary scale."
Billy said she earns $32,000. She is a realty officer for the tribe's natural resources department. She oversees land assignments and leases.
As for the fact that the council is working on economic development projects, Billy said she wasn't convinced by that argument either.
"If their plans for the casino and all the other development projects became a reality, and I hope they do, and they became big (money) generating businesses, I don't think I'd have a problem with salaries such as those, but not before," she said.
She said she ran for office twice before, but does not plan to run again, and was not motivated by politics to write to the council.
"They could fire me," Billy said. "But they would be really crazy, at this point, to fire me because I won't shut up."
Billy said others feel the same way, but are afraid to speak up because they might lose their jobs.