The cooperation and partnerships between Cass County and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in recent years have not only been successful but apparently are highly unusual, both state- and nationwide.
Time and again at the April 24 joint meeting of the county board and tribal council, at Northern Lights Event Center, speakers mentioned how other tribes and governing bodies asked them “How did you accomplish that?” or “Where does this happen?”
One key element is the Memorandum of Understanding signed Jan. 31, 2014, that provides a framework for cooperation between the county and the Band. It states, in part, that “it is mutually understood that consultation between the parties will contribute to the creation of more enlightened, better constructed and more effective policies and decisions.”
“It’s remarkable how many issues can be handled by staff talking to each other,” Cass County Board Chair Neal Gaalswyk said.
Both governing bodies have directed staff to consult with the other at least 14 days prior to asking for final governing body approval in areas where the other entity also has interests and concerns.
Paving the way was a Cooperative Law Enforcement Agreement, signed in 2001 between Leech Lake tribal police and five county sheriff’s offices, including Cass. All law enforcement agencies agreed to support and provide mutual aid to the others; since, as Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch pointed out, “When something happens, it doesn’t matter the color of the uniform. Somebody needs to get there to respond.”
The agreement will be reviewed this year and possibly amended to help Leech Lake carry out its civil regulatory laws.
Burch noted that at least one other county in the state has asked Cass if it could review the cooperative agreement.
Leech Lake Police Chief Ken Washington said his agency is improving its ability to enter “hot files” information (stolen property, runaways, weapons, missing persons) directly with the state; previously this was done through the Sheriff’s Office but now Leech Lake will submit reports.
County deputies and tribal police are now better-trained in how to distinguish between civil/regulatory offenses that go to tribal court, and criminal offenses that would be referred to county district courts. County and tribal officers meet frequently to exchange information.
Tribal Court Judge Paul Day said that as he travels around the country, he often speaks about the cooperative spirit between county and tribal government.
Another cooperative effort will begin once a new judicial center is built in Cass Lake, where a courtroom would be used for the Ninth Judicial District Court to hear cases so that Cass Lake residents don’t have to travel to Walker for court appearances.
Judges are very interested in providing a more convenient location, Court Administrator Bob Sommerville stated. “We just need to work out the logistics, protocol, schedules, Internet.”
Wellness Court is another success story. Probation Director Jim Schneider said the court, which seeks to change behaviors of repeat DWI felony offenders, produces desired short- and long-term outcomes through behavior modification and intensive supervision, while protecting public safety. The county board and tribal council both support Wellness Court, as do county and tribal judges.
The Leech Lake Band and Cass County are jointly collaborating on a MacArthur Grant application that looks at how things could be done differently to reduce jail incarceration while enhancing public safety.
Turning to roads and trails, LLB’s Levi Brown noted that when two partners work together, they can often access different “pots of money” to find funding for trails, road and bridge projects; one entity can serve as the fiscal agent for the other, increasing the number of successful applications.
Two joint road projects were finished in 2014, Assistant Highway Engineer Kris Lyytinen reported. Several more are in the offing in the next 3-4 years, including a possible new bridge at Federal Dam.
At Health, Human and Veterans Services, Director Reno Wells said staff always tries to get input from Leech Lake before making a response.
Cass County social workers now appear in tribal court in connection with their cases. Two social workers now meet clients at the Leech Lake Government Center, and client feedback is very positive.
Cass Veterans Service Officer Jeff Woodford has mentored Leech Lake’s newly-hired VSO and filled in until she is fully accredited this summer. “A veteran is a veteran, whether a tribal member or not,” he stated.
Wells said the two Social Services agencies work together and hold frequent meetings to improve the quality of life for those they serve.
Lenore Barsness, Leech Lake Human Services director, asked for county representation on a new task force to address prenatal exposure to drugs on the reservation.
Brown noted that Leech Lake will be applying for Lessard-Sams funds next year to purchase environmentally-sensitive habitats on the reservation, and that the Land Department helped with the application.
Cass County and Leech Lake have conducted five to six clean-ups on public land, demolished many abandoned buildings and will continue to do so. They also have applied for funding for the Stony Point and Sugar Point wastewater systems. The Leech Lake Band will be working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on dredging Leech Lake’s Roosevelt Canal.
Cass and Leech Lake will jointly lobby the state for Cass to get a larger share of the Tribal/State sales tax agreement for taxes the reservation pays to the state.
Auditor-Treasurer Sharon Anderson said the new absentee voting precinct set up last November at Leech Lake Tribal headquarters worked very welled. The number of voters using the location compared favorably with others that had been established much longer. She said her office plans to work with Leech Lake again for the 2016 general election.
“When the MOU was signed [last year], it really helped our relationship,” Tribal Chairwoman Carrie Jones declared. “Beltrami and Itasca counties are asking what is in the MOU. It shows the progress we have made as government entities.”
District 1 Tribal Representative Penny DeVault called it “truly inspirational” and noted that the Leech Band will be working next with Itasca County.
Leroy Staples-Fairbanks, District 3 Tribal Representative, said other tribes “don’t have the luxury of having these relationships built, much less a partnership. They are actually working against each other!”
“[Sharing] money, more than anything else, is evidence of the level of trust between our partners,” Gaalswyk concluded. “We represent the same people.”
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