Cass County Board Chair Robert Kangas (from left) and Leech Lake Band Secretary-Treasurer Donald Finn sign the Memorandum of Understanding between Cass County and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe as Tribal Chairwoman Carrie Jones and County Administrator Robert Yochum look on.

A wide-ranging conversation between Leech Lake Tribal Council and Cass County Board of Commissioners, held Friday at the new Leech Lake Government Center in Cass Lake, concluded with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two governmental units.

The MOU is designed to improve communications and cooperation between Cass County and the Leech Lake Band, specifically “to provide a framework for cooperation ... for natural resource management, community development, economic development and maintaining Ojibwe cultural life-ways.”

The five-year agreement, approved by both entities before the meeting, was formally signed by Tribal Chair Carrie Jones and Secretary-Treasurer Donald Finn; and by County Board Chair Bob Kangas and Admininistrator Robert Kangas.

“Today was a huge step with Cass County and Leech Lake signing the MOU. It could be a role model for others,” Jones declared.

The MOU notes that while the Band and County will strive to reach consensus, when it cannot be reached, each governing body will direct their staff to make good faith discussions and exchange possible solutions before making a final decision.

Nothing in the MOU implies that all disputes will be resolved. “The parties recognize that there may be times when they disagree on principle, but they concur that these disagreements shall not stand in the way of an effective, respectful working relationship, nor preclude continuing consultation in good faith.”

Topics discussed during the two-hour joint session — the first held in more than three years —  reflected the MOU’s upbeat tone.

Yochum reiterated Cass County’s interest in sharing facilities wherever and whenever it makes sense, such as the proposed joint MnDOT-Cass County Highway Shop in Remer.

With Leech Lake just starting to plan for a new criminal justice center, he suggested they consider incorporating district court space and possible jail space into the facility.

Jones agreed that Leech Lake needs to identify a location for the justice center that will serve into the future and that collaboration would be best. She pointed out that many tribal members have difficulty traveling from the Cass Lake area to Walker for either court or human services appointments and that they would benefit if those and other services could be brought to Cass Lake.

Sheriff Tom Burch said the cooperative law enforcement agreement between Cass and Leech Lake is working excellently, as is the Wellness Court which helps those charged with DWI offenses. Burch asked that Cass and Leech Lake schedule a review of the law enforcement agreement.

Art Chase, Director of Tribal Roads, and Cass County Highway Engineer Dave Enblom reviewed several past and current cooperative projects.

Work continues this winter on the new bridge with pedestrian fishing path alongside, on County State Aid Highway 8 across the Boy River. The bridge should be finished by early July.

Other projects include a pedestrian trail along County Road (CR) 75/60 near Palace Casino; CR 143, which will be paved in the spring for June completion; and CR 136 (2 mile paving) in the Sugar Point area.

Future projects include plans to repave CR 75 in 2017, with possibly CR 150 near the Tribal College and KOJB radio station at the same time; and the rest of CR 136.

Leech Lake District representative Steve White put in a plug for a future safer walking/biking trail along busy Highway 2 west of Bena.

Enblom suggested the two departments work program future joint projects as far ahead as possible to allow time to iron out details and obtain funding.

“Your tribal roads department is a pleasure to work with,” he added. “They respond in a timely manner and we are getting things done.”  

Leech Lake Human Services Director Ed Frankowiak said that Leech Lake continues see success in handling its own child placement services for native children, under a state program that began several years ago.

He said that Leech Lake plans to become more actively involved in the Children’s Initiative through the Cass Lake-Bena School District. He will be discussing this with Initiative Director Barb Mann.

Health, Human and Veterans Services Director Reno Wells noted that Leech Lake is currently looking for a new Veterans Service Officer to serve tribal military vets. In the interim, he offered the services of Cass County’s two VSOs who make regular visits to Cass Lake.

Environmental Services Director John Ringle said that over the past couple of years, Cass County obtained state clean water funds to do engineering and environmental reviews on noncompliant and failing septic systems in the Sugar Point and Stoney Point areas of Leech Lake.  Those plans will allow Leech Lake to move forward to seek funding from the state and federal governments, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service and other sources to build a community wastewater facility.

Levi Brown, Leech Lake Land Management Director, noted that if and when the Band ever moves forward with development on Shingobee Island south of Walker, it will need to upgrade the current community sewer system.

Both Cass and Leech Lake have now adopted State Rule 7080 septic system rules, the two directors said.

Yochum noted that in recent years, Cass County has changed its policy on Leech Lake’s fee to trust applications to the federal government, which has been a past topic of controversy.

Now, instead of routinely objecting to applications because of loss of tax base, Cass County has decided to neither object nor support trust applications. It will respond to the BIA’s requests for tax or other information but will not take any position on applications.

Yochum did ask that Leech Lake inform Cass County as soon as possible on upcoming fee to trust applications, “so that when our constituents receive notices in the mail and start calling us, asking what’s going on or what Leech Lake plans to do with the land — we will know what to tell them.”

Commissioners Jim Dowson and Dick Downham have been designated as the board’s liaisons with the Leech Lake Band.

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