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State-Tribal Relations group scolds Noem administration for not attending meeting
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State-Tribal Relations group scolds Noem administration for not attending meeting

Legislators on the State-Tribal Relations Committee criticized Gov. Kristi Noem's administration for not sending anyone to attend the group's meeting Wednesday in Rapid City. 

I'm "greatly disappointed and embarrassed that there’s no one here from the governors’s office. I think that it’s greatly disrespectful" to the committee and tribal chairmen in attendance, said Sen. Lance Russell, who represents parts of Pennington, Custer and Fall River counties. "As a Republican, I am embarrassed that the leader of my party would not give us any indication as to this bill draft" to create an emergency fund for pipeline spills. 

The absence of the executive branch from the meeting at the Best Western Ramkota Hotel came up when committee members began discussing whether or not to recommend the pipeline spill bill, which would be funded by pipeline companies and maintained by the state. It would allow individuals, municipalities and tribal nations to immediately access funds if they are impacted by a spill rather than recover their losses through a lawsuit. 

Speaking over the phone, Sen. Jordan Youngberg, a Republican who represents District 8 on the eastern side of the state, called for a motion saying that the committee will stay neutral on the proposed bill until it has the chance to speak with Noem's administration, the attorney general and the Department of Natural Resources. But that was voted down based on arguments from Russell and others who said state officials had their chance to comment about this bill at this meeting and one on Nov. 12. The committee instead voted 8-1 to recommend the bill. 

Shawn Bordeaux, committee chair and a Democrat who represents Mellette and Todd counties, noted that David Flute, secretary of the Department of Tribal Relations, had been invited to attend the meeting and was on the agenda to discuss "issues related to riot boosting," taxation and joint powers agreements. But Flute told the committee a few days ago that he wouldn't be able to make it, Bordeaux said. 

"I made prior commitments weeks ago to participate and engage in networking meetings and speaking engagements" on the day of the committee meeting, Flute wrote in a Dec. 12 letter to Bordeaux obtained by the Journal. 

It turned out that some of Flute's events were being held at the same hotel where the committee was meeting, this reporter and several legislators learned after seeing him in the hallway. 

“I didn’t get the sense that he wanted to be here," Bordeaux said of Flute. 

Flute said that's not the case. 

"I value the committee, I respect the committee, but unfortunately I had prior commitments," Flute told the Journal during a break. 

Flute said three months ago he accepted invitations from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other groups to discuss meth, law enforcement and other issues impacting reservations at meetings being held during the Lakota Nation Invitational.

"I can't be in three different places at once," he said. 

But Bordeaux told the Journal that that's not an excuse and that the committee would have let Flute drop in to speak any time he had a break in his day. He and Russell also said they would have been happy if Flute or Noem's office had sent anyone who could represent their perspective. 

Russell said Noem's office was invited to attend the meeting in November and that he personally contacted the office to invite Noem or someone else to attend on her behalf. 

"They were well aware that they were invited and for whatever reason they chose not to attend," he said. 

Russell — who said he supports the Keystone XL Pipeline as long as there are measures to protect taxpayers and the environment — said he wanted Noem's office to discuss issues such as the proposed pipeline spill fund, the ACLU settlement over laws aimed at pipeline protests, and new legislation to replace parts of the statutes that a federal judge said violated the First Amendment

He said he wants advanced and transparent communication between the executive branch, legislature and tribes when it comes to pipeline issues to avoid what happened last year when the riot boosting package was introduced last minute and passed with little debate after a suspension of the legislative rules before parts of it were deemed unconstitutional. 

"The manner in which it was handled last year was inappropriate," Russell said. 

Wileman said Noem is doing exactly what Russell wants. 

"The governor’s staff has been monitoring the committee meeting today" and has been "beyond transparent in her draft pipeline legislation," Wileman wrote. Noem "has asked for input from tribes, legislators, stakeholders, and the ACLU. This approach is highly unique and not usually done."

"The governor’s office is committed to answering any questions legislators have about pipeline legislation, but we can’t be everywhere at once," she said when asked why no one from Noem's administration attended the committee meeting. 

During the meeting, some legislators and tribal chairmen also said they were upset about plans for Flute to deliver the State of the Tribes address in January. Tribal leaders, not the secretary of tribal relations, have delivered the annual speech since the tradition began in 2016. 

“I think it’s important to continue that tradition," said Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. “I probably won’t be there if a state employee is giving that address.”

Wileman said the legislature’s Executive Board had requested that Flute, former chairman of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, deliver the speech. 

"As a former tribal chairman and now the Secretary of Tribal Relations, Secretary Flute has a broad perspective on the issues facing tribes across the state," she wrote. "His mission is to give the legislature a complete picture of the state of the tribes, instead of a chairman or president focusing most on one specific tribe. In the Secretary’s effort to include all tribes, he has reached out to tribal chairmen/presidents from each tribe and asked for input."

— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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