Saturday, June 15, 2024

Commissioners and governor meet to discuss PL 280

Editor | May 23, 2024 12:00 AM

It’s safe to say the future of Public Law 280 – the 60-year-old law enforcement agreement that’s given Lake County jurisdiction over most felonies committed by members of federally recognized tribes within its boundaries – is up in the air.

However, Lake County Commissioners Gale Decker and Bill Barron and County Attorney James Lapotka met with Gov. Greg Gianforte Tuesday afternoon for to discuss the future of the agreement. It was the first face-to-face meeting between the commissioners and governor since the county initiated efforts to pull out of the agreement, citing its ever-increasing costs to county government and local taxpayers – or convince the state to help cover expenses.   

In an email Thursday, Decker said the commissioners had received a letter Wednesday from the Governor with a new offer. "He will support a bill in the upcoming session that would give Lake County $1.3 million annually for three years. But, he does want a 'stakeholder-driven' ... solution as to how to permanently fund PL 280 prior to the legislative session. Sans a plan, the state will initiate retrocession from the agreement."

Decker added that the commissioners had not yet reviewed the proposal internally, and hoped to also meet with Tribal Council to discuss the governor's plan. "It's the best offer we've had to date and worth consideration on our part," he said.

The meeting followed a flurry of press releases, letters and phone calls – and came in the wake of the governor’s refusal to sign the official proclamation acknowledging the county’s withdrawal from the agreement, as required by statute.

That proclamation had been expected to be signed Tuesday. Instead, his attorney, Anita Milanovich, notified Lake County Attorney James Lapotka last week that the governor had not received a copy of the appropriate resolution from the county commissioners back in November, so “a proclamation from the governor is improper at this time.”

Milanovich wrote that the paperwork sent by the county commissioners Nov. 20 via certified letter contained a copy of the wrong resolution. Instead of the actual resolution to withdraw, signed by the commissioners last May, the attorney said it contained the resolution changing the date for delivery to the governor of the resolution to withdraw.

Without a copy of the original resolution, she writes, “the Governor’s obligation to issue a proclamation is not triggered.”

A press release from the county commissioners, dated May 17, counters that the county “is confident that it has followed the statutory process for the governor to issue his proclamation on May 21.” In addition, the county’s attorney in the matter, Lance Jasper, told the commissioners his office also sent a certified letter to the governor in November, containing a copy of the correct resolution.

Meanwhile, Lake County Sheriff Don Bell issued a letter Monday addressed to “The Citizens of Lake County,” declaring that “after Lake County withdraws its consent to participate in PL 280, it does not divest my office of my authority, or my obligation to ensure peace and order within our community.”

“This office, and our deputies will continue enforcing the law in the same manner we have under the PL 280 arrangement for decades.”

He adds that the county commissioners have authorized his department to begin tracking expenses and billing the state for costs relevant to the agreement – which presumably includes investigation and incarceration for felonies involving tribal members.

“I swore an oath to protect this community and want the community to know that withdrawal of consent from PL 280 changes nothing in terms of the Sheriff’s Office’s response to crime and disorder in the county,” he writes.

A press release also arrived Tuesday morning from Polson Police Chief George Simpson, pointing out that his department remains fully invested in Public Law 280. He promises that “the citizens and guests of the City of Polson will see no noticeable changes in law enforcement services.”

Simpson also references the concerns other public officials have expressed that Lake County will become “a lawless land” if the county withdraws from the agreement.

“The City of Polson will not be a lawless land and stands firm with Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in carrying out the public safety mission in our community,” he writes.

Simpson adds that while Polson Police have a good relationship with all law enforcement agencies in the Mission Valley, “we have a great relationship with CSKT Law and Order.”

According to Decker, in the absence of a proclamation from the governor or a plan in place to address myriad law enforcement issues following the county’s pullout from the agreement, the county will continue to exercise jurisdiction “in the interest of public safety.”