Tribal members vote in favor of referendum that includes payouts

Yurok tribal members have approved a money-sharing proposal for funds won in a legal settlement that includes construction of a hotel-casino in Klamath.

Preliminary results show that 1,016 voters favored the referendum while 642 were opposed, according to a Yurok Tribe press release. Voter turnout was 56 percent.

The tribe's election committee will certify the results Monday, according to the release.

The plan distributes about 63 percent of the $27.5 million settlement to tribal members. Most of the remaining 37 percent will fund the construction of a Holiday Inn Express and a casino near Yurok Tribal Headquarters in Klamath.

"I view this vote to be a mandate from the tribal membership to move forward on the hotel and casino plan," Tribal Chairman Thomas O'Rourke said in a written statement Thursday. "We are on the path to economic self sufficiency. The regional economic security we seek to create will only bolster our sovereignty."

O'Rourke did not respond to a Triplicate request for further comment Friday.

Under the referendum, tribal officials will distribute $17 million from the settlement to individual members. Those age 60 and older will receive $4,500. Those 18-59 will receive $3,500. For minors, $1,000 will be placed in an irrevocable trust and distributed to them when they turn 18.

On Feb. 15, the tribe posted on its Facebook page that the general contractor for the hotel-casino, Tulsa, Okla.- based Flintco Constructive Solutions, is seeking bids for subcontractors for the project.

The hotel-casino is expected to create 100 jobs, according to the press release, with construction beginning in late March. A Yurok Justice Center, visitor's center, cultural knowledge park and an amphitheater will also be built this spring, the release stated.

Approval of the referendum renders moot an opposing petition that sought to distribute the entire $27.5 million settlement to tribal members, according to James Dunlap, sponsor of the petition and founder of the online forum The Yurok Tribal Court rejected a motion for an injunction to block the referendum on the grounds that it violated the tribe's election ordinance.

Under the ordinance, the Tribal Council must approve a referendum at least 30 days in advance for it to be included in the tribe's annual election. The council can also call for a special election, as it did in this case.

Dunlap argued that the referendum violated the tribe's election ordinance because officials did not publish an official election notice 45 days prior to the Feb. 20 deadline for voting, which is a requirement for the election of Tribal Council members. He argued that special elections are subject to the other requirements outlined in the tribe's ordinance.

In a hearing Tuesday, the Tribal Court declared the referendum legal. According to the court's opinion, the election ordinance does not require that all of its voting provisions apply in a referendum election.

Dunlap said if he chose to appeal the court's decision, the case would be heard by the Tribal Council.

"At best we would have to ask the council to recuse themselves in hearing the case and have it transferred to another court," he said. "If they refused to recuse themselves we would have to appeal their decision to the (Board of Indian Appeals) in Virginia."

Dunlap and about 30 other tribal members gathered 648 signatures on a petition to disburse the entire settlement amount, minus $500,000 for attorney fees. The petition needed 593 signatures to put the proposal on a ballot, but because the tribal membership has voted on the Council's disbursement plan, Dunlap said Yurok Enrollment Director Earl Jackson told him the petition was moot.

"According to Earl Jackson, that referendum was a vote for distribution as well as authorization for the hotel," Dunlap said.

The settlement, finalized on Jan. 4, stems from a class action lawsuit involving the Yurok Tribe and 73 other tribes as plaintiffs. The case, Nez Perce Tribe, et al. v. Salazar, deals with the mismanagement of the tribe's trust lands and trust assets by the federal government, O'Rourke said in January. The tribe currently has 3,500 acres of trust lands.

The tribe has worked for more than a decade on the casino project, according to the press release. Several feasibility studies related to the hotel-casino have been conducted. Architectural designs and environmental permitting are also complete.

Tribal members interested in employment for the hotel-casino project should call the Tribal Employment Rights Ordinance office at 482-1350.

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