Ute Mtn. members attempt recall

Chairman targeted, but organizers list broader issues

A group of Ute Mountain Ute tribal members dissatisfied with current leadership are gathering signatures to trigger a recall election of Chairman Gary Hayes.

So far, the group has gathered about 400 signatures, said Sarah Tall Bird, a member of the tribe. Tall Bird is among a small group of tribal members who began circulating the petition two weeks ago. At least 25 percent of voters, or about 500 members, must sign the petition in order to trigger an election, according to tribal policy.

The petition comes two months after the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe received $42.6 million as a part of a settlement with the federal government.

While the petition is in response to several long-standing issues with the tribe’s leadership, organizers said officials’ resistance to distribute the settlement money directly to members was the last straw.

“The money helped us to see that people haven’t been given a voice and that things haven’t been done right,” said Regina Lopez, another tribal member who is behind the petition.

The people don’t trust tribal leadership to manage and invest their money wisely, petition organizers said. They pointed to documents distributed last year to tribal members that showed the tribe’s net assets plunging from $15 million in 2008 to negative $4 million in 2010. During that same time, the graphs also showed a drop in earnings from energy-related endeavors and from the tribe’s enterprises such as the casino, travel center and pottery sales.

And while the petition targets Hayes’ leadership, that is only one of several problems with the tribe’s leadership structure, other tribal members said.

Some members criticized Ute Mountain Ute leaders for neglecting to follow through with a code of ethics. The code was enacted in 2010 and establishes an ethics committee that aims to ensure tribal officials “understand their ethical obligations, adhere to proper standards of behavior and are accountable for unethical activities.”

But two years later, tribal members said no ethics committee has been formed.

Other members of the tribe said the Administrative Affairs Act — a 2009 resolution that outlines the duties and responsibilities of the tribal chairman — delegates to the chairman responsibilities that the constitution rightly granted to the Tribal Council. Those duties include negotiating with federal, state and local governments and having say over the duties of staff members appointed or retained by the Tribal Council.

If nothing else, petition organizers hope their efforts will “shine some light” on the tribal members’ grievances, Lopez said.

Contact Emery Cowan by emailing ecowan@durangoherald.com.