Newtok’s Relocation Effort Slowed By An Ongoing Tribal Dispute

The latest round of Bering Sea storms beat up the Southwest Alaska coastline, including Newtok. The community’s move to the Mertarvik site on Nelson Island may be more pressing than ever, but the long relocation process is in a holding pattern due to a tribal council dispute.

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Residents in Newtok have known for years that their community faces serious risks with rapidly advancing erosion. The November storms pushed water up to the community’s essential infrastructure. Stanley Tom describes himself as the tribal administrator for the traditional council. That is for the old council, which does not have support of the BIA or the state.

“It’s really bad, I mean the erosion is really near, the fuel header is being impacted right now, it just around the erosion and the water source is getting there, our last water source will be impacted next summer,” said Tom.

The struggle between the old and new council led to a wasted 2013 construction season at the emergency shelter at the new site. The dispute is built around the idea that the old council did not hold elections for 7 years. In October of last year, elections were held and the old council was voted out.

George Carl is Vice President of the new council. He points to the community being upset with perceived competency issues with the old council.

“Well I’d call it a playhouse, after the expiration of their terms, you know if you understand what’s going on, according to my understanding, these guys were illegally operating all these years without any elections, that kind of stuff,” said Carl.

The old council points to different elections in November in which the members retained their seats. In any case, the agencies that fund projects like relocation can’t have dueling councils.

“There’s not two councils out there, there’s only one council. The dispute is over who are the council members that control the funds, and the action, and the progress.”

Scott Ruby is the director for the state division of community and regional affairs. The agency started working with the new council after the BIA issued its decision in July to work with the new council.

It hasn’t been a smooth transition. The old council has not given the new council access to the offices or the important financial records. They’ve had to set up new bank accounts. Stanley Tom accuses the new council of stealing letterhead and documents.

In the meantime, the community is trying to move. They have about 10 million dollars in grants through the state with 4 million spent, but perhaps not all properly. An audit by the state found some troubling accounting, and they want 302 thousand dollars back, according to Ruby.

“Preliminary findings are that there are some double billings of some of the expenses that were filed for materials and purchases, and there were some inconsistencies with the payroll and so the audit as it is now says that we will consider some of these expenses are not to be valid, and they need to be repaid,” said Ruby.

Stanley Tom says it goes back to accounting mistakes from when the DOT was managing the project, before the local leadership took over. The audit highlights some of the wages that Tom received along with project consultant George Owletuck.

“We did get paid way less than the state agencies were getting paid, they were getting paid 168 and hour and we were way below, like we billed like $80 an hour and they were still complaining,” said Tom.

With or without the longtime leader, the project is inching back to life and the 2014 construction season is not far away. The evacuation shelter is now just an empty concrete foundation and will require new drawings to be able to use the materials that sit on the site. Ruby says the tribe is not yet spending funds, but it’s able to do the background work.

“Coming up next summer: these are the things that need to be done. Let’s work on getting this stuff ready so we can order whatever materials need to ordered for the barges so they can be put on the barges, you know whatever permits need to be done,” said Ruby.

In the meantime, the old council is appealing the BIA’s decision. They say they have proof of elections. The case goes to a national board which could wait a year before it takes up the appeal.

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Ben Matheson is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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