Mixed signals on tribe vote

Red Wing Republican Eagle

At best, the Prairie Island Tribal Council has done a poor job in communicating the rules of the referendum on its proposed agreement with Xcel Energy for expansion of spent fuel storage at the nearby nuclear plant. At worst, the council is raising suspicion about the integrity of the vote.

Either way, the council has misfired on a vote that is critical to its community members, the economic vitality of Red Wing and surrounding communities, and the stateís energy policy. We hope the new vote ordered this week will get tribal support for the state legislation back on track.

The vote carried pretty high stakes when first announced, or so it seemed. The Tribal Council, after months of negotiations with Xcel Energy, signed an agreement in March that would allow for additional nuclear waste storage in exchange for money that the tribe could use to address a variety of concerns.

The agreement was signed by all five council members – which is noteworthy in itself, considering the factions. At the same time, the council announced that the agreement was contingent on a community referendum.

Red flags about the vote have been raised ever since the April 17 deadline passed and the Tribal Council was mum on the results.

First, tribal officials said they were ensuring time for any ballots that may have gotten delayed in the mail. Yet notices to tribal members clearly stated that ballots were due April 17.

Second, tribal officials extended the balloting due to May 2 when it was revealed that the response fell short of the necessary ballots. The election required participation by 30 percent of the approximately 300 eligible voting members. They were short one vote as of Wednesday.

Now the council has called for a brand new election due to the expected legal challenge on the validity of the first vote.

That’s not all, however. The Tribal Council, via its spokesman, says the referendum isnít even necessary to enter into an agreement with Xcel – but at the same time says it wants to ensure full community participation on such a significant issue. That begs several questions, including: Why make the original announcement that the agreement was contingent on a vote? Why extend balloting in the first election? Why call for a second vote?

Let’s not underestimate the importance of the referendum. The tribeís support of an agreement is seen as critical to any dry-cask storage legislation. Certain lawmakers are sure to be waiting in the wings, ready to cry foul over the election and use it as ammunition to try to stop the bill.

The Tribal Council likely has its work cut out to convince legislators there is community support for the legislation – whenever the vote is completed and however it turns out. The Tribal Council has an even greater challenge in restoring confidence among its tribal members.