Political infighting among leaders of the Spokane Tribe spilled into Spokane City Hall recently, raising concerns that City Councilwoman Mary Verner abused her position to seek removal of a former tribal leader from a city-sponsored panel.
Verner, who is employed by a tribal organization, pushed for the removal of former Spokane tribal council member Ronald “Buzz” Gutierrez from the city’s Native American Public Development Authority. That ouster was sought by Spokane tribal leaders who help oversee management of the Upper Columbia United Tribes, the organization that employs Verner as its executive director.
“I never thought of it as a conflict,” Verner said this week, explaining that Gutierrez’s status on the panel was never discussed in the context of her work with the five regional tribes.
She said the Spokane Tribal Business Council, in a letter to city officials, wanted Gutierrez replaced with another tribal council member after Gutierrez lost his re-election to the tribal council in June.
Gutierrez, however, believes Verner was simply doing the bidding of Spokane tribal members who are in a position to influence her standing with the Upper Columbia United Tribes and who wanted him off the Public Development Authority board. The board was formed a year ago to develop a tribal cultural center at or near Spokane Falls.
In an interview, he complained that he was treated unprofessionally by Spokane officials and that he questions the propriety of Verner’s involvement in his removal from the board.
“The Spokane tribal council got me off the board through Mary Verner,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez said Verner is employed under a five-member board that includes representatives from each of five area tribes, including a Spokane tribal member that Gutierrez has battled with over the past year. That raises a question of conflict of interest, he said.
Assistant City Attorney Barbara Burns said any conflict of interest question could be raised by council members or the mayor’s office, and possibly by Gutierrez himself. “He’s welcome to raise the issue,” she said.
The City Council is seeking to form an ethics commission to look into such questions, including a prohibition against using a city position for personal benefit.
Infighting among Spokane tribal members dates back a year, when Gutierrez accused other tribal council members of using the tribe’s status to purchase $56,000 worth of surplus state property at a discounted rate for use by a private construction company with ties to the council members involved, Gutierrez said.
Charges against three council members over the deal were dismissed in August after three tribal court officials either left their jobs or were forced out. Gutierrez said he lost his re-election in June because he raised the allegations publicly.
Those same council members wanted him removed from his appointment to the board, Gutierrez said. “It’s a good-old-boy network,” he said.
In July, the tribal council without Gutierrez adopted a resolution recommending Gerald Nicodemus as Gutierrez’s replacement.
Also in fall, the Spokane tribal gaming commission closed Gutierrez’s family-operated gambling casino just south of Chewelah on U.S. 395.
In January, the Spokane City Council voted to confirm Nicodemus, but the action was not in compliance with the city law that created the Public Development Authority board. The council was required to receive a recommendation from the mayor on Gutierrez’s removal, and then hold a public hearing on that removal.
Gutierrez said he met briefly with Mayor Dennis Hession in January and told him he wanted to continue serving on the board, but the mayor was busy and gave him only a few minutes to talk about the matter.
The council revisited the issue on March 27, holding a combination public hearing on Gutierrez’s removal and then voting for a resolution to remove him and replace him with Nicodemus. Hession appeared at the hearing and voiced his support for the action. However, Hession never made a recommendation for Gutierrez’s removal in a separate letter to the council.
Gutierrez said he was never informed of the hearing and would have attended to argue against his removal. He said he wanted to continue to serve his tribe and accomplish the goal of building a cultural center.
Verner said she believes Gutierrez knew that the hearing was being held.
Gutierrez said, “I don’t believe what they have done so far is proper.”