POLSON — For the first time in more than two years, the Lake County commissioners and members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council sat down for a meeting on Wednesday.
“Although some of the topics may be contentious, we do need to remain civil,” Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker reminded everyone at the outset. About two-thirds of Lake County overlaps with the Flathead Indian Reservation, and recent years have seen the county and tribal governments spar over several local issues.
But as they discussed these topics in an hourlong meeting, the Council, commissioners and audience members abided by Decker’s call for civility — and even found a few areas of agreement.
The first agenda item was not one of these areas. Last week, the tribes sued the county commissioners and the owner of a proposed Big Arm development, alleging that the road she was using to access the development was tribal trust land, not a county right-of-way.
“The county disagrees with this contention and will vigorously oppose the lawsuit, and is confident that history and facts will prevail on the side of the county,” said Decker, reading from a statement and saying, when he finished, that the county would not comment further on the matter.
Across U.S. 93 from that property, the two entities have another disagreement, over new development by S&K Gaming at the Big Arm Marina.
“Personally I’m a little disappointed in the marina development,” Decker said, “simply because you folks fought so hard for retaining the density map and regulations … and yet at the marina site there are many, many violations of the Lake County density regulations. To me that’s bothersome.” Last year, Lake County relegated its Density Map and Regulations to non-binding advisory status, a move the tribes opposed.
“I look at it as, we didn't really change anything” at the marina, Tribal Council Chairman Ron Trahan told Decker. “We made things that were existing, newer, and that's about all we've done, we improved things that were already existing there, so I don't see where the density map has anything to do with that.”
“We can agree to disagree on that," Decker said.
The commissioners and council also revisited a long-running dispute over the Temporary Tribal Tax Exemption, which applies to land being considered for federal trust status, and took opposing stances on the National Bison Range, which the tribes aim to have placed in federal trust ownership for them.
“I think it’s important that you folks be involved in managing and running it,” Decker said. “Now, transfer of it to you folks, obviously I have a different opinion on that.” Commissioner Bill Barron concurred, voicing concern about the prospect of lands being taken out of federal ownership.
“There is a lot of federal parks out there, but they're not sitting in the middle of our reservation,” Trahan said.
While the two sides failed to resolve these differences, discussing them led to related areas where they could seek funding and collaborate: road and pathway construction in Big Arm and elsewhere, weed control in the National Bison Range area, improvements in the criminal justice system.
“These things that we’re talking about and finding common ground are the things that we need to focus on,” Tribal Council member Charmel Gillin said towards the end of the meeting. The council members and commissioners tentatively agreed to meet again in two months and discuss weed management, walkways, cemetery management, and law and order.
The three commissioners and several of the 10 council members said they were pleased to be talking again.
“I want us all to remember that as elected officials, we have a population out there that's depending on us,” Tribal Council member Len Twoteeth said, “and I think it's very imperative that when we're conducting business … we need to work together.”
But Tribal Council member Fred Matt's final request — “Can I get a hug?” — just drew some laughs.