REPORT FROM BTBC CHAIR, HARRY BARNES
Tribe Responds to Town of Browning
(From The Glacier Reporter January 13, 2016 issue)
At the request of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council I have prepared a response to the Town of Browning’s assertions brought forth in the Dec.16 Glacier Reporter. This is the Tribe’s only response as we will not engage in a tit for tat running dialogue through the newspaper. We respond now because so much misinformation has been placed in the public forum with no input from the Tribe.
The Town of Browning sued certain individuals of the last Tribal government. They did not name those they felt were friendly to their cause. This action was taken by their highly compensated law firm with a reputation as Indian fighters that like to attack tribal sovereignty. They named individuals who happen to be Council members in a thinly veiled attempt to get around the sovereignty issue. Then an election happened, and I had an armed U.S. Marshall serve me papers in my office. Not only I, but Joe McKay, Nelse St. Goddard, Tyson Running Wolf and Scott Kipp became defendants. We did nothing more than get elected as leaders of the Blackfeet Nation. The attorney’s justification was “we may not have started the fire, but we stood around and poured gas on it.” All of their legal fees and legal problems stem from the Town’s own poor choices. As they lost one legal approach after another, they thought it was time to approach the Tribe about settling. They could now start seeing they held a losing hand. A small committee of the Council did meet with the Town to see if there was a path to resolve this. We are elected to represent the interests of the Blackfeet nation and not the Town of Browning. Arguably most of the residents are also Tribal members. At our most recent meeting with the Town of Browning, I did commit to bring their proposal to the full Council, I did.
This entire episode started with the Tribe’s request for the financial information the Town of Browning had for setting rates. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) at the time gave the Tribe rate setting responsibility. It is well understood in almost every utility in the country that rates are based on the actual cost of delivery of service or product. Municipalities cannot unilaterally shift the cost of government onto ratepayers for water delivery because they need revenue for snowplowing. Is snowplowing important? Absolutely! Is sending a town official to Houston to be trained in how to operate a city recycling center important? Maybe. Both are legitimate functions of a town like Browning, but those are not a legitimate cost in the delivery of water. This all became moot because the Town of Browning could not show a completed financial audit. What costs were associated with water delivery and what were other town functions? The last audit we can find on the Town of Browning was in 2010. Their proposal required the Tribe to produce an audit!
When this set of new defendants were elected, we sat down with the existing Council and agreed the financially responsible thing to do was produce audits and report to members what was the financial condition of the Blackfeet Nation. It was not easy and it was not cheap. But it was the responsible thing to do. Now the Town of Browning would like to reach agreement on our sending revenue into a system where there are no responsible reporting mechanisms in place. Sure, the law requires the town submit regular audits, but they have not done so. Maybe the attorney fees should have gone to an auditor. Just saying.
This Tribe is on a path of accountability and responsibility. We will not tell the Town of Browning how to operate. But accountability and responsibility to our members, those who happen to reside within town limits and those who live outside town limits, means we cannot spend limited resources on less than legitimate concerns.
The sad truth is that the Town of Browning must come to grips with a lack of revenue streams. The Blackfeet Tribe is blamed for trying to kill the Town of Browning. We tell our youth the Tribe is changing the name and even going after the Running Indians. I and other Council members are asked why we are doing this to the members in Browning. The mayor sends out a so-called survey that was really designed to feed the fears of the Tribal members and get them to call and complain. It was successful, just misplaced. You don’t ask for consideration on one hand then try to break our other hand. What was left off the survey was the truth that most rural towns in Montana are suffering. Most do not have a sufficient revenue stream to operate their town. Many rural towns have disappeared.
The Town of Browning notified Glacier Electric they would no longer pay the street lighting bill. Glacier sent notice to residents that the lights would be shut off and they would need to pay for them by Jan. 18. Glacier Electric never gave their largest member/owner a courtesy letter. This Council has done the responsible thing in the interest of public safety for members and non-members. We will temporarily pay the bill and take legal action against GEC. I ask the Town leaders to please be more honest and share the whole story with your residents.
ONLINE GLACIER REPORTER 1-20-16
ONLINE GLACIER REPORTER 1-20-16
What’s next? Bankruptcy or Disincorporating? Browning’s City Hall closes its doors and radio station goes off the air
Posted: Wednesday, January 20, 2016 6:00 am
(Editor’s Note: Calls to Mayor Willie Morris for more information for this article were not returned.)
Browning’s City Hall is vacant this week, a note on the door from Jan. 11 saying it would be open until noon every day but Fridays and weekends. Two more notices state the reduced hours, adding the county offices would be closed for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but would open again on Jan. 19.
Both notices are incorrect, apart from the MLK closure, because on Thursday, Jan. 14, radio disc jockeys from KBWG-LP 107.5 FM were told to turn in their keys, and the facilities subsequently shut down, apparently until further notice.
According to Blackfeet Councilman Joe McKay, some members of the BTBC had earlier met with Browning officials to find a resolution to their longstanding argument over control of water and sewer, as well as garbage services within the town’s boundaries on Jan. 9. But when McKay and the Tribal attorneys read over the proposed MOA, they recommended the Tribe not agree.
“Upon review the MOA was completely one-sided in favor of the Town. It would return complete operation of the system to the Town. No questions asked. It required the Tribe to be accountable to the Town, but did not require the Town to be accountable to the Tribe. It did not address the money owed to the Tribe by the Town, the collection of future funds or the Town’s lack of audited financial statements. It was completely unacceptable,” McKay wrote.
As a result, the Town issued a letter warning residents that it might either disincorporate or file for bankruptcy, and blaming the Tribe for its problems. On Thursday, Jan. 14, the Town shut down its radio station, KBWG-LP 107.5 FM Thunder Radio, and shut its doors to the public.
According to County Commission Chair Michael DesRosier, at this point the ball is in the town’s court, and the county must await the town’s decision whether to attempt disincorporation or file for bankruptcy. “We got legal advice from our assistant County Attorney,” DesRosier said, “and we have no role in this. The city must either declare bankruptcy or disincorporate first.”
The Commissioner explained that bankruptcy is by far the easier route to take. Disincorporation requires that either two-thirds of the City Council vote for such a move or that 15% of the residents ask the county to do so. After that, the matter goes to the resident voters who must approve the measure by a 60% margin. DesRosier estimates the entire process might take as long as two years.
By contrast, DesRosier says that filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy would give the town time to address its ills without creditors hounding them for money. “It sounds bad, but it’s a tool for people to reorganize and reestablish themselves, and it puts the creditors at bay. They could file and start reorganizing immediately, especially catching up with their audits which is a major issue.”
Regarding the satellite County offices housed at Browning’s City Hall, DesRosier said the county is negotiating with the town to continue using their facilities and paying rent. “We’re willing to pay the rent and staff it and secure it,” DesRosier said, but added no decision had been made. He did say that given the county’s obligation to provide for public safety, Browning’s fire trucks will continue to roll as long as Browning keeps supplying its volunteers for the department.
In addition, regarding Thunder Radio, DesRosier said that the same commitment to public safety might enable the county to find ways to save the station since it is the only local source of Disaster Emergency Services information and might therefore qualify for funding through the county’s DES department. Additionally, Dr. Billie Jo Kipp of Blackfeet Community College said BCC is “very much interested in assuming the station and making it a college station and building a communications program around it,” but she said things are still in a preliminary stage of development.
According to Glacier County Commissioner Tom McKay, he understands the town’s council advised the mayor to contact a bankruptcy lawyer. He adds he talked to the Mayor and City Council who advised him that the last time the Tribe and Town had gone to Tribal Court, Judge Dave Gordon said he was unsure of his jurisdiction in the case and told all parties not to return until they’d reached an agreement, and that meantime there should be no bills issued or shutoffs conducted.
“Personally I hope the issue gets resolved because a lot of citizens are suffering, and I hope they take their concerns into consideration – it’s the people who are suffering,” McKay said.