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Rocky Boy voters asked to change constitution

Rocky Boy voters will decide next month whether to approve proposed changes to the tribe's constitution and bylaws, including provisions for tougher penalties for criminals and the appointment of tribal judges, who are now elected.

The special secretarial election at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation will be Jan. 6.

Tribal members, who were notified about the election by mail, had until Wednesday to register to vote. About 370 people registered, slightly less than the 389 who registered for last year's secreterial election, said James Montes, field officer for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs at Rocky Boy. The BIA office is administering the election.

Montes said most of the proposed changes on this year's ballot went before the voters in March of 2002. The results of that election were thrown out at the request of the Chippewa Cree tribal council after a group of about 100 tribal members belonging to a group called the Grassroots People marched to protest the election.

The group opposed a "dual enrollment" amendment on the ballot, which said tribal members enrolled at another reservation in the United States or Canada would lose their enrollment at Rocky Boy if they didn't discontinue the second enrollment. Grassroots People also said Montes did not notify all eligible voters of the election by mail as required by law. The protesters said the majority of Rocky Boy residents are enrolled in reservations in Canada, and that those people would have voted against the amendment, which passed 123-52, if they had known about the election.

At that time Montes said he didn't follow the requirement to send a notice of the election by mail to all tribal members because his list of members was outdated. Instead, he spread word of the election through local media and by posting letters at about 10 sites on the reservation.

This year voters were notified by mail, he said Monday. That means that as long as there is no protest filed in tribal or federal court, the election will go on.

The dual enrollment amendment will not be on the ballot on Jan. 6.

The first amendment on the ballot would move the tribal council primaries, now held in June, to October, reducing the lame-duck period for tribal council members from six months to one month.

Montes said the tribal council wants to shorten the lame-duck period so council members who don't make it through the primaries don't stay in office for six months before they're replaced.

The second amendment on the ballot would increase the maximum penalty for misdemeanor convictions in tribal court from six months in prison and a fine of $500 to a year in prison and a fine of $5,000.

Tribal council member Jonathan Windy Boy said Tuesday the amendment would bring tribal law in line with the maximum penalty tribes can impose under federal law. He said the amendment would hopefully deter crime.

The third proposed change would prohibit tribal members who have been convicted of a felony in federal or state court from running for tribal office within five years of the end of their sentence. It also would apply to people who have been convicted of the use, possession or sale of illegal drugs in state, tribal or federal court.

The tribal constitution now only restricts people who have been convicted of a "felony involving dishonesty" in state or federal court or of a misdemeanor involving "dishonesty or bribery in handling tribal affairs" in tribal court from being a candidate within five years after the completion of a sentence. It does not include a drug provision. The fourth change would delete a provision from the constitution that revokes tribal membership if a person has been away from the reservation for 10 years without coming before the tribal council to apply for an extension of his or her membership.

"To us, at least some of us, when you become a member of a tribe - a federally recognized tribe - you should always be a member of a federally recognized tribe no matter what," said tribal council chairman Alvin Windy Boy Sr.

Montes said the tribe has not enforced the provision since 1958.

"It created a lot of hard feelings," he said.

The fifth proposed amendment, the only one that did not go before the voters last year, would enable the tribal council to appoint the chief tribal judge and two associate judges. Those judges are now elected to four-year terms. The amendment also would give the council the authority to appoint a chief appellate court judge, who would appoint an unspecified number of appellate panel judges.

Chief Judge Gilbert Belgarde said Monday that an informal appellate court was established by the tribal court in 1989, but the tribal council officially formed the appellate court in February. The chief appellate court judge position is vacant at this time, he said.

The amendment does not specify how long the appointed judges would serve. The council would negotiate contracts with the judges. The proposed amendment would require the judges to have "extensive tribal judicial experience and be in good standing to preside over the tribal court and tribal appellate court."

Jonathan Windy Boy said the amendment would mean more qualified judges in tribal court.

"Right now there aren't any specific qualifications," he said. "It all goes back to the protection of the people and making sure that the judgment process is fair."

Belgarde said the amendment would threaten the balance of power in tribal government.

"I think they really opened up a can of legal worms and Pandora's Box" for the council members, Belgarde said. He said some people could see it as an effort by the council to control tribal government, and that it could prompt them to call for other changes like term limits for the tribal council and the tribal chair.

"Too much power should not be concentrated in the business committee," he said, referring to the official name of the tribal council.

Alvin Windy Boy said the items on the ballot came more from the people than the council.

"These are certainly concerns of the community," he said. "It's not necessarily a tribal council initiative. It's going to be decided by the people."

Belgarde said he doesn't think the tribal council would appoint him judge if the amendment passed.

"I wouldn't even be a shoeshiner," he said.

Federal law says that secretarial elections, which amend the Chippewa Cree Tribe constitution adopted in 1935, must be administered by the BIA, Montes said.

Secretarial elections are relatively rare, he said. The only year in which Rocky Boy voters passed proposed changes to the tribe's constitution and bylaws was in 1972. That election included, among other things, eliminating voting districts on the reservation in favor of an at-large system of voting. Another election was held in 1978, but the proposed amendments did not pass, he said.

A secretarial election can be held if two-thirds of the tribe's eligible voters sign a petition or if the tribal council passes a resolution, Montes said. The council passed a resolution in July calling for this election.

The election will be held in the old Stone Child College gym on Jan. 6 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Absentee ballots must be postmarked no later than Jan. 6.


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