By John Weymer
Today, Aug. 1, was voting day at the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, and the results in this general election for tribal council are as telling as they are surprising.
The membership made its collective voice heard loud and clear that they want change and they want it now. At a time when the tribe is facing its most critical crossroads in modern Puyallup tribal history, it’s obvious that the membership knew that bringing a major shift in power to the council is the smartest move they can make. Their very futures are on the line in this era of COVID-19.
In total, 15 candidates put themselves in the running for two council positions that were up for re-election, leaving four candidates that survived the June 6 primary to move on to the Aug. 1 general election: incumbents Jim Rideout and Tim Reynon, and newcomers Monica Miller and James Miles.
Rideout received the most votes with 575 tribal members voting for him, and winning the most absentee ballots, showing that the membership in the heart of the reservation and around the country trusts him and wants him to stay in leadership. But in a major upset, Miller received the second highest number, an impressive 463 votes, which means that she has effectively unseated Reynon who has been on the council for the past six years. Reynon lost by a considerable number of votes at 381, and Miles came in last with 271 votes.
Rideout is a well-liked tribal member and council member, always there for the membership and without being attached to the power, glory and money that some other council members embrace. Miller is also respected among the general membership for her work as longtime director of the tribe’s Per Capita/Representative Payee Department. She is sister to current council member Sylvia Miller and to Vernetta Miller, who is executive director of the tribe’s Elders Wellness Center and involved in the tribe’s gaming enterprises. As someone brand new to the council, Monica Miller represents the ray of hope that the entire tribe needs right now.
Tensions and infighting among the council members have been going on ever since David Bean was chosen as council chairman last year. This was another startling upset in tribal leadership, as Bean replaced Bill Sterud as chair after Sterud’s more than 40 years of serving on the council in various positions, including chairman, compared to Bean’s 13 years on council.
With these new election results, however, the council is now poised to experience a major change in power balance, as the chairmanship will again be decided by the full council in keeping with election year protocol. Looking at who’s who on this “new” council, Sterud has a good chance to return to the chairman’s seat.
Traditionally backing Bean are his sister and current tribal council member Anna Bean, and council member Annette Bryan. Reynon used to be part of this group too, but now he is out. Sterud has typically been supported by Jim Rideout and Sylvia Miller and now Monica Miller is in the picture, creating a very good likelihood for a nomination for Sterud and the vote for chairman to sway in his favor.
Under Bean’s leadership, the tribe has been floundering in numerous ways. First there is the impact of the coronavirus and how the tribal council has responded to it. The membership demands transparency and straight answers about tribal finances and a clear plan of action, but Bean doesn’t seem to want to go that way even though he championed transparency on the council when he first ran, leading to him being elected. Local media can’t get any clear answers either, with Bean taking a cue from Donald Trump to establish a code of silence when the media, like the Tacoma Weekly, asks pressing questions. He also was a key factor in killing off the Puyallup Tribal News newspaper.
Then there is the issue with the tribe’s per-capita payments, money that tribal members depend on to help pay their basic bills and living expenses. Once the coronavirus hit and the Emerald Queen Casino was forced to shut down, the tribe’s key moneymaker was put out of commission yet the council didn’t really have any back-up in the treasury. By the council’s own admission at the tribal general membership meeting last month, the council has secured $60 million in federal COVID relief aid but won’t share details with the membership of how that money is being spent.
Opening the new EQC amid the coronavirus is another example of questionable council decisions with Bean as chairman. Despite warnings that it was too early to allow groups of people back into the confines of the casino, the council and casino management opened it up anyway and it was a lackluster affair to say the least. No dignitaries were there to celebrate, no showy ribbon cutting was held for media photo ops, and no fanfare marked the opening of a casino that was supposed to be the tribe’s new goldmine and a “Vegas-like” experience for patrons. The novelty wore off quickly and now the customer count is the lowest in EQC history.
After a few weeks, reports of lax enforcement of health and safety regulations at the casino began to emerge, and that employees were coming to work sick but afraid to say anything about it for fear of losing their jobs. Now the feds have stepped in, with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sending notification for the casino to clean up its act or suffer the consequences.
The Aug. 1 election day itself was marred by more casino controversy. A man was shot and killed in the EQC parking garage near midnight on July 31, adding to the nearly half-dozen shootings that have happened at or near the EQC over recent years.
This is the climate facing the tribal membership and council right now, and it is a deadly serious one. Shaking things up on council is the most positive thing that has happened in the Puyallup tribe for months, illustrating that the power of voting really can have an impact and hopefully lead to much needed change for the better, and for the life of the Puyallup tribe.