ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A federal appeals panel has sided with the new leaders in a tribal power dispute that has stalled efforts to relocate a badly eroded village in western Alaska.
The Interior Board of Indian Appeals stepped in to review a 2013 ruling by a Bureau of Indian Affairs official that determined the sitting tribal council no longer represented the Yup'ik Eskimo community of Newtok for bureau funding purposes. The old council appealed the decision, which gave local power to a new group that claimed to be the rightfully elected council.
The appeals board said in its Thursday decision that the old faction failed to submit any evidence in support of "its own claim of continuing authority."
Tom John, tribal administrator of the new council, applauded the ruling, saying decisions will now be easier to make without the confusion of the old council. He said he had been worried because the appeal had been going on so long.
"I feel relieved," John said Friday, adding they can now proceed with relocation efforts to the new site. "We got a major task to accomplish."
Andy Patrick, president of the old council, said the dispute is far from being resolved, as far as he's concerned. The decision can be appealed to U.S. district courts, and it may come to that, according to Patrick.
"It's not even close to over yet," he said. "We are going to the highest court, even to the top of the White House."
The community of about 380 is one of Alaska's most eroded coastal villages and the only one that has begun a physical move to higher ground 9 miles away. The power dispute has stalled millions of dollars in government funds for Newtok's relocation effort.
Government officials have estimated the flood-prone village, 480 miles west of Anchorage, has until the end of the decade before erosion causes severe damage.
Alaska officials said state funds also are halted, but only while the new council members figure out the best way to use the funds they have remaining to complete an evacuation center at the new site.
In its ruling, the BIA said required elections were purportedly not held for more than seven years, so the old council had been operated on expired terms. The old council denied the allegations.
The new council members were first elected in October 2012. The following month, members of the old council held another election.
The resulting dispute reached a boiling point the following year when the new council got more votes during a community meeting attended by both sides. That victory carried significant weight in the BIA's rare intervention.
In its decision this week, the Indian appeals board rejected arguments made on appeal by the old council that it had been holding elections and that the October 2012 vote was invalid.
"We find no justification for considering them now when they could have been presented below," the board wrote in its five-page decision.
Adding to the complication of the dispute, past audits by the state concluded that the old faction mismanaged the administration of relocation grants, such as changing the architectural design of the evacuation center after it took over the project from the state in 2011.
The audit also noted apparent payroll improprieties, including exorbitant compensation for certain employees. The audit recommended that the tribe return about $300,000 to the state for alleged improprieties including duplicate payments on invoices and retroactive wages for employees.
Debi Kruse, a state grants administrator, said the $300,000 has not been repaid. With the dispute in place, the state hasn't taken a stance yet on how to approach reimbursement, she said.
Tribal officials have denied any mismanagement. Patrick said his council has hired a new auditor, who is working on the issue. He said he could not comment further.
The village is considered noncompliant in audit years 2011 to 2013. Kruse said the new council has not had access to prior files or records because of the dispute, and it understands the issue still needs to be addressed.
"Since we have been working with the New Council they have not spent enough money to warrant an audit," Kruse said in an email.
Follow Rachel D'Oro at https://twitter.com/rdoro