Opponents push petition to alter Yurok revenue plan

Some Yurok tribal members are protesting a money-sharing proposal that would allocate part of the funds from a recent legal settlement to the building of a hotel-casino.

About 30 tribal members are gathering signatures on a petition that calls for an election on whether the entire $27.5 million settlement should instead be disbursed to tribal members, minus $500,000 for attorney fees, according to James Dunlap, sponsor of the petition and founder of yurokvoices.com, an Internet forum for members to discuss tribal issues.

"You will be very hard-pressed to find any tribal members that support this hotel-casino project," Dunlap said. "The tragedy is that they're dangling a little bit of money because of the hardships tribal members are experiencing now."

Tribal officials could not be reached for comment Monday.

This petition is in response to a Yurok Tribal Council decision Jan. 12 to set a referendum that, if approved in a tribal election next month, would distribute 63 percent, about $17 million, of the settlement to members. The remaining 37 percent, about $10 million, would pay for construction of the hotel-casino, Tribal Chairman Thomas O'Rourke Sr. said last week.

The council's decision came about a week after the settlement was finalized in a class action lawsuit involving the Yuroks and 73 other tribes as plaintiffs. The suit, Nez Perce Tribe, et al. v. Salazar, dealt with claims of federal mismanagement of tribal trust lands and trust assets.

The hotel-casino's design and permitting work are finished, according to O'Rourke. It would sit directly across from the tribal administration building in Klamath.

But the group opposing it has collected nearly 400 signatures so far from members living as far away as New York and Virginia, Dunlap said. It needs 593 signatures to put the proposal on the ballot, he said.

The group will submit the petition to the Yurok Election Board at the board's meeting today, Dunlap said. If the board approves the petition, the group will then present it to the Tribal Council at its meeting Thursday in Weitchpec.

The group's members met Saturday in Klamath and Crescent City to discuss the petition and gather signatures. They said they were visiting Eureka and Hoopa on Sunday and Monday.

"We're saying, 'These are the people that elected you, these are the people that pay your paycheck,'" Dunlap said. "'Your authority that we grant you only goes so far. ...' We're hoping they will respond."

According to Dunlap, this is the second petition that has been circulated in response to the $27.5 million settlement. An earlier one called for disbursing 90 percent of the settlement funds to tribal members, similar to how another large settlement was handled in 2007, Dunlap said. But when the group submitted the petition to tribal government, its legal department declared it invalid because it wasn't worded correctly and the signatures lacked dates, he said.

That petition had been circulating about a week and a half before the Tribal Council approved the referendum, Dunlap said.

If the tribal government declares the new petition invalid, Dunlap said the group is prepared to seek an injunction to stop the disbursement of funds from the Treasury Department to the Yurok Tribe.

Under the group's petition, if the entire settlement was disbursed with $500,000 going toward attorney fees, members age 18 and over would receive $6,000 each and minors would receive $1,000 each.

"We're trying to give them $2,500 more than what they're giving them," said Frank McCovey, who has also been gathering signatures. McCovey added that the group didn't start gathering petitions until last Thursday. "I've got them coming from New York, Texas, Washington, Oregon, Indiana and San Diego. And that's just my people."

Under the Tribal Council's referendum, tribal officials would distribute $17 million from the settlement to individual members. According to the tribe's proposed per capita distribution plan, members 60 and older would receive $4,500. Tribal members 18-59 would receive $3,500. For all minors, $1,000 would be placed in an irrevocable trust and distributed to them when they turn 18.

The hotel-casino would consist of a 60-room Holiday Inn Express and a casino with 125 machines, O'Rourke said last week.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.