Questions About Transparency, Concentration Of Power For Mashpee Tribe
By: Geoff Spillane
One year ago this week, Earl H. Mills Sr. (Chief Flying Eagle) called a meeting of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe at a field next to the Mashpee One-Room Schoolhouse to protest that tribal leadership was making important decisions without input from tribe members.
As the tribe pushes forward to meet state-mandated deadlines to develop a destination resort casino in Taunton, the question of whether an appropriate level of transparency exists between tribal leadership and rank-and-file tribe members has once again become a hot topic.
The renewed transparency debate has been triggered by the surfacing of a 2011 Harvard University-authored inventory assessment of the tribe, and the recent announcement of a tribal gaming authority ordinance.
Observers and tribe members are now wondering if tribal leaders have ignored recommendations intended to help the tribe develop strong governmental institutions.
“In doing so, it poses questions related to purpose, goals, impacts, and limitations. The reason is quite straight-forward: These governing structures affect how a tribe exercises its sovereignty in practice and, thus, are fundamental to a nation’s overall well being,” according to the report.
Commissioned in January 2009, The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development delivered a 34-page inventory assessment report of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, developed to assist the tribe in its nation building endeavor.
Through a series of interviews and surveys conducted with the tribe members and leaders, the authors of the report concluded that “it was evident that Mashpee citizens, elected officials and administrative staff hold a strong desire to see their nation succeed.”
On the other hand, the report found the tribe was lacking a strategic plan and broad tribal mission statement—key components for success. The report also cites confusion and overlap in roles and responsibilities among some departments.
At the time the report was written, annual reports, financial operation manuals, organizational policy manuals, and tribal gaming authority documents were found to be nonexistent.
The report praised the tribe for establishing a tribal court system that operates free of interference or influence of the elected officials on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council. However, the process by which significant major decisions are presented to the tribe for approval appears “inconsistent,” according to the report.
“Time and time again, we find that transparency, although often seen initially as threatening, improves council and program operation by removing grounds for rumor and misinformation as the means for affecting change,” the report stated.
The report also faults the tribe for an unstructured, non-strategic approach to soliciting grants, going as far as to say that the tribe will “do whatever it can find funding for,” whether or not it fits into any long-term plan or vision.
One observation noted that there is a “lack of transparency associated with revenues flowing to the tribe from non-Federal sources…It is unclear to HP/NNI and some of those we interviewed how these funds are expended…”
The experts at Harvard recommended that the tribe develop a strategic plan, have a more formal process of department review and performance, provide tribe members with access to an annual report and budget documents, and, overall, create a better system of communication.
The report also stresses that the Mashpee separate the “politics” from the “business” of the tribe by creating a business development organization with an independent board of overseers.
Tribe member Paul Mills said in an interview this week that lack of transparency has long been an issue with the tribe. “The present council ran on a platform of transparency. They made promises on the way in, but that changed. Many people have no idea of what’s going on,” he said.
John A. Peters Jr., executive director of the state Commission on Indian affairs and a member of the Mashpee tribe, said that the recommendations of the report have not fallen on deaf ears, and that many of the necessary organizational issues have been implemented. “We are moving on the right direction, but some of the suggested changes are extensive and may take a while to put in place,” he said.
When asked if any of the Harvard Project recommendations had been implemented, Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell, through a spokesman, provided the Enterprise with the following written response:
“Over the past three years the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has made many efforts to improve Tribal government and services for our citizens. Among these measures are hiring a Tribal Administrator; increasing direct communication to Tribal citizens through mail, our website, email, meetings and hearings; hiring a comptroller; conducting full annual audits; producing an Annual Budget; and implementing first class financial controls and reporting. The efforts to fully build our Tribal Nation and offer best in class services to our citizens are ongoing, including the hiring of a Human Resources Director. We are proud of the progress we have made and we are excited about the plans we have to continue to improve our Tribal government operations.”
Mr. Mills said that he has seen a very small change in the way tribal leadership operates, but “at this point we will take anything.”
Misko Beaudrie, primary author of the Harvard Project report, could not be reached for comment.
Tribal Gaming Authority Created
With the possibility that millions, if not billions, of dollars may be passing through its hands in the future, the tribe last month introduced the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Gaming Authority Ordinance.
The ordinance was developed to create an agency and organizational structure as part of the tribal government that will operate and manage the proposed gaming enterprise, own all property, and assume all liabilities and obligations arising from the enterprise.
The ordinance automatically appoints members of the tribal council to the authority board of directors, closes meetings to tribal members unless approved by a majority of the board, and allows limited access for review of the records.
Mr. Mills said that while some tribe members have problems with some of the content of the ordinance, just the fact that tribal members got to see the text at all is a step in the right direction.
Chairman Cromwell disagrees with the allegations of non-transparency.
“The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s proposed Gaming Authority Ordinance has been widely discussed and reviewed within the Tribe. The ordinance has been available for review to all Tribal citizens at tribal offices, on the tribal website, and was discussed and handed out to Tribal citizens at the April 2012 general membership meeting. In addition, there was a letter sent by US mail to all Tribal households inviting citizens to attend multiple hearings on the gaming authority ordinance. These hearings were also announced on the tribal website, in an email to tribal citizens and on the Chairman’s blog. Further, the Gaming Authority ordinance was reviewed, discussed, voted on and passed at a Tribal Council meeting. The process has been open and transparent and has followed a model that has been successfully implemented by many federally recognized tribes,” he said in a written statement.