PABLO — A Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council member is under scrutiny after allegedly driving a longtime employee to step down.
Charmel Gillin represents Polson on the 10-member Tribal Council, with a term expiring in 2022. In the past two months, both her fellow council members and Tribal Court have found her at fault in the resignation of Tribal Health Department Head Teresa Wall-McDonald.
Wall-McDonald has held several positions in tribal government over the years, including tribal council member. She took over as Tribal Health Department head in February 2018, assuming leadership of an agency that serves more than 12,000 recipients and operates several health facilities around the Flathead Indian Reservation.
Her departure, and the ensuing legal fight, began at Tribal Council’s Feb. 19 meeting, when Gillin took a step that Tribal Court Chief Judge Brad Pluff would later call “reckless at best.”
At that meeting, Gillin submitted 26 complaints against Wall-McDonald, alleging that her tenure as department head involved several grave errors, including “endangering suicidal patients” and hostility and retaliation towards Tribal Health employees. Pluff later noted that Gillin wrote and signed all but one of these complaints.
The council wrestled with how to handle these allegations. After submitting them into the record, Gillin motioned to direct Chairman Ron Trahan to extend Wall-McDonald’s probationary period for six months, allowing time to review the complaints. That motion failed. Nine days later, the council voted to direct the tribes’ internal auditor to review the complaints, and frequently discussed the complaint forms and process in the following weeks.
But their response would soon be found lacking.
Tribal court documents indicate that Wall-McDonald signed her letter of resignation on Feb. 28. Five days later, she filed a grievance form, alleging that her departure amounted to a “constructive discharge,” which tribal law defines as an employee’s voluntarily deciding to leave because an employer creates conditions “which an objective, reasonable person would find so intolerable that voluntary termination is the only reasonable alternative.”
Within weeks, Pluff concluded that Wall-McDonald faced such conditions. In his April 4 opinion, he wrote that “Ms. Wall-McDonald was subject to bullying and harassment at the hands of Ms. Gillin when the latter submitted the 26 complaints” at the Feb. 19 meeting, adding that her manner of submission “demonstrates an intent to humiliate and/or shame Ms. Wall-McDonald.”
The fault wasn’t Gillin's alone, Pluff continued. He wrote that the complaint submission obligated Trahan to investigate Gillin’s actions, and take corrective action — but no such investigation occurred. That meant “the bullying and harassment was permitted to stand as memorialized in the Tribal Council’s record, leaving Ms. Wall-McDonald with no way to address the substance of those 26 complaints," and making her resignation "reasonable."
The former department head didn’t only seek redress through the grievance process. At the March 28 Tribal Council meeting, Wall-McDonald filed a complaint against Gillin, arguing that her actions had risen to the level of “vindictiveness” and as such violated the Code of Conduct for Tribal Elected Officials.
At the April 11 meeting, Council concluded that Gillin’s actions had indeed been vindictive. Carole Lankford, Leonard Gray, Fred Matt, Leonard TwoTeeth and Ron Trahan voted that it had been; Anita Matt, Myrna DuMontier and Shelly Fyant voted no; Gillin abstained. They then voted to determine sanctions later.
The Missoulian asked tribal spokesperson Rob McDonald about the possibility of disciplinary action against Gillin, why Trahan had not investigated her conduct and what damages, if any, Tribal Court had awarded Wall-McDonald.
In an email, McDonald wrote that, “while the judge’s opinion is a public document, this Tribal Council process is ongoing and not open to the general public. The other personnel matter regarding tribal health is also an internal process.” Joe Durglo currently serves as acting department head.
Charmel Gillin did not reply to a request for comment. But at the same March 28 meeting when Wall-McDonald entered her complaint, Council Member Leonard Gray brought forward a resolution reaffirming that "individual council representatives are to refrain from involvement or interference of the workflow of Tribal Programs outside of actions taken within officially convened tribal meetings," and that council members could not direct tribal employees unless specifically directed otherwise.
According to the minutes, he explained that he was doing it "to reassure the tribal members that we are getting our act together. … This will let the membership know that we can police ourselves."
Of the seven members present, only Gillin voted against it while Shelly Fyant abstained. Gillin remarked that she agreed with the intent, but "I believe we can do that by having the meetings and discussions we talked about having, especially referencing the complaint processes, roles and responsibilities."