BARAGA - Despite blustery weather that closed many schools in the region Friday, 102 Keweenaw Bay Indian Community registered voters came out to the Helene Welsh Ojibwa Seniors' building in Baraga for the tribe's first ever meeting-style popular referendum.
After a question and answer session on the proposals mediated by Tribal Treasurer Eddy Edwards, the voters overwhelmingly approved expenditures to support a pair of council resolutions.
According to Edwards, they voted 96-2 for a new health records and medical billing system for the tribal health center, and 73-17 for a computer system to record data from casino slot machines and provide feedback for management.
"It went really well for the first time in 80 years, for the first time we've had a popular referendum for expenditures," Edwards said. "To follow the constitution isn't such a big obstacle as people thought. It was a good process, and a lot more people showed up than I thought."
The new referendum process was enacted to comply with the tribe's constitution, which says that any tribal expenditure over $10,000 should be approved by a popular referendum. The tribe has held referendums at the polls in the past, but both Edwards and council members opposed to the meeting-style referendums agree there hasn't been one on expenditures for at least as long as they can remember.
Not long ago, the tribe spent $1.5 million to buy property in Marquette for a tribally-owned gas station. "That should have probably gone to a popular referendum," Edwards said.
Tribal council member Jennifer Misegan agreed with Edwards that the constitution hadn't been followed in the past, but said the meeting-style referendums weren't a good solution.
"I can appreciate the need to follow the constitution, but we should also follow tribal laws, and we have an election ordinance," she said.
"The resolution for a popular referendum was approved, but not the process," she added. "There's also no process to certify these election results. The constitution said the election should be delegated to the election board, and this was delegated to the treasurer. It's unconstitutional."
Misegan said she also feels there should be a minimum percentage of registered voters for a referendum to be valid. Friday's 102 voters, she noted, was only 14 percent of the tribe's 715 eligible voters.
According to Edwards, the referendum could come into play very soon in an issue all sides agree is critical to the tribe. He's currently in negotiations to buy the Baraga Lakeside Inn as a site for a new tribal casino, and said he could have a purchase proposal ready for the tribal council as soon as this Saturday, when it's tentatively scheduled to meet. That purchase would now require referendum approval.
That choice of sites for a new casino, however, is also still a matter of contention within the council. The council recently passed a resolution approving the Lakeside negotiations, but also passed a resolution approving creation of a task force to review three different casino options - the Lakeside, renovating the existing Ojibwa Casino in Baraga or trying again for approval of a Marquette-area site.
"I would think it would take some time for that task force to review everything and come up with some information," said council member Susan LaFernier. "All we want to do is make sure all options are considered before making a decision."