Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Can commissioners choose cooperation over conflict?

Editor | June 20, 2024 12:00 AM

The Lake County Commissioners appear bent on reopening old controversies and unsettling settled law, judging by recent missives they’ve sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (March 1) and President Joe Biden (June 6).

Don’t they have enough on their collective plates without trying to apply language from treaties signed well before they were born to contemporary issues that would surely benefit from cooperation instead of conflict?

On the same day, June 6, that commissioners met with the Tribal Council to discuss the future of Public Law 280, the endangered law enforcement agreement that gives the state and county jurisdiction over felonies committed by tribal members, they also wrote to President Biden, asking him to compensate citizens and businesses for last summer’s historically low lake level and the problems it posed for businesses and property owners.

The commissioners, with help from the county’s former civil attorney, Wally Congdon, called the Tribes’ management of lake levels last summer “a depredation” – language from an 1855 Treaty with the Blackfeet that included signatories from Salish and Kootenai leaders. The Oxford dictionary defines “depredation” as an act of attacking or plundering.

The letter also challenges the Tribes' right to assess fees for dock supports that extend beyond the high-water mark – a matter that was settled by the Namen case in 1982. Do we really need to go there again?

In their petition to FERC, the commissioners listed several ways to avoid last summer’s water deficit and keep the lake at or near full pool, regardless of how parched the Flathead basin might get in the future. Among them, they recommend “leasing SKQ dam to a corporation that has more experience and expertise in managing a hydroelectric facility.” How does an inflammatory suggestion like that contribute to management of sparse water resources during a drought?

The petition also raised public safety as a key concern. What happens if the lake is low and wildfire strikes, especially in areas like Finley Point and Kings Point where one road leads in and out? It’s certainly something emergency management and wildland fire specialists should talk about, as well as those with homes on the lake. But it’s probably not something FERC can solve.

Public safety is also a key concern as the county prepares to exit Public Law 280, the law enforcement agreement that’s been in place since the 1960s. What will the future of law enforcement look like here? Is there room for collaboration that benefits all of us, tribal and non-tribal? I would hope last Thursday’s meeting was a step in that direction.

The Tribes and County will disagree. That’s inevitable. But why sabotage opportunities to find consensus?

I find myself agreeing with tribal attorney and acting executive officer Jordan Thompson, who said Monday, “I think it would be more helpful if they just came and talked directly to us rather than sending letters that we don't know about.”