Joseph “Cougar” Lucero’s Appointment Unconstitutional

Below, you will find highlights of the issues the Isleta Tribal Council discussed during their meeting on March 5, 2013. All Council members were present for this meeting. Governor Eddie Paul Torres was present.  Lieutenant Antonio Chewiwi and Lieutenant Isidor Abeita were not present.

Joseph “Cougar” Lucero’s Appointment Unconstitutional

The Isleta Tribal Court issued an order on February 28, 2013, deciding that Joseph Lucero’s appointment as a Chief Judge based on a 6-5 vote is not in conformity with Isleta Tribal Constitution.  The tribal attorney, Pablo Padilla, prepared a Petition for Judicial Review on behalf of Governor Eddie Paul Torres and the Isleta Tribal Council.  The Petition asked the Tribal Court to decide whether the confirmation process for Lucero complied with the Constitution.

Chief Judge Ernest Jaramillo, Associate Judge Robert Medina and Associate Judge Aaron Choneska rendered the decision. Chief Judge Jaramillo and Judge Medina determined that the Pueblo could not confirm Lucero as Chief Judge because the vote was 6-5.  Article IX, Section 2, of the Constitution requires that 2/3 of the Council vote to confirm a judicial appointment.  Lucero needed seven (7) votes in his favor.

The Council voted multiple times on Joseph Lucero’s appointment.  The first vote was 6-5 in favor of appointing Lucero as Chief Judge. The Council voted a second time to confirm the first vote.  The second vote occurred because Council member Barbara Sanchez knew that the first vote did not satisfy the Constitution. So, Sanchez wanted the Council to vote once again to confirm Lucero’s appointment. The Council members did not understand why Sanchez was requesting a second vote. Sanchez did not explain her true motivation for requesting the second vote. As a result, the language of the second motion was to confirm the first vote.  The second vote was 9-0-2.  The Court did not discuss the third vote of 6-5.

The Court decided that the purpose of the second vote was to confirm the first vote. It was not a new vote to confirm Joseph Lucero. Apparently, the Court listened to the audio recordings of the Council meetings because the Court explained that Council member Fernando Abeita requested clarification on the purpose of the second vote, which was to confirm the first vote. The response to Abeita was “yes.” Thus, the second vote did not confirm Lucero’s appointment.

Judge Aaron Choneska issued a dissenting opinion. Choneska felt that it was improper for the Tribal Court to issue a judicial opinion on the nomination process because it was a political question. Judge Choneska felt that the vote on Lucero was an “internal matter” and that asking for the Court to resolve the issue encroaches on the Constitutional duties reserved for the Council. Choneska decided that he would abstain from rendering his opinion on the Council’s confirmation vote.

Council Decides that Joseph “Cougar” Lucero will Remain on the Council

The Isleta Tribal Council had to decide whether Joseph Lucero was still a member of the Council after the Tribal Court determined that his appointment was not constitutional.  Lucero took his seat at the Council table.  As the Council was approving the agenda, he requested an opportunity to read a statement for the record. Lucero wanted to discuss the “disparate” treatment he was receiving.

Lucero stated that the Council’s leadership had showed him “flagrant disrespect and disregard” by leaking information concerning his appointment to “Haw Men Choo.” Haw Men Choo is a site on Facebook, which allows individuals to express their opinions and comments about Isleta Pueblo and other issues relating to Native Americans. Former Council member ReGina Joyce Zuni established the Haw Men Choo forum on Facebook.

Some Council members took the position that Lucero was no longer on the Council because he submitted a letter resigning his seat on February 19, 2013. Thereafter, the Council voted to approve a special election to fill the seat vacated by Lucero. The Council’s actions on voting to approve a special election to fill his vacant position served as acceptance or acknowledgement that Lucero resigned from his seat on the Council.

Lucero argued that his letter resigning his position on the Council was contingent on his appointment as Chief Judge. Lucero stated that he only resigned after he thought the Council confirmed his appointment to the bench. He felt that members of the Council were now on a “witch hunt” to prevent him from serving on the Council.  Lucero stated to the Council, “[y]ou hate me. You want to hurt me.”  Lucero asked the Council to treat him “equitably and with fairness.”

President James Abeita allowed Council members an opportunity to express their views.

Barbara Sanchez stated that for her the “court’s order doesn’t hold water.”  She did not want the Council to personalize the situation.  She said next time, the Council needs to look at the qualifications of the individual and what they can do for the Tribe.

Juan Rey Abeita stated that the “resignation doesn’t hold any water, it is null and void.”  He did not think it was right for the Council to take away Lucero’s livelihood and the position that was elected into.

Cynthia Jaramillo stated that, “[w]e can’t stop Cougar from taking his seat. He was elected. We didn’t put him here.”

Verna Teller explained to Joseph Lucero that she could not vote for him because he did not have the “demeanor to sit on the bench.”  She was concerned that Lucero was easily angered and that he had a tendency to say inappropriate things.  She felt that everyone had to share the blame in the process used in Lucero’s appointment.

Governor Torres commented that, “it’s unfortunate that this happened and let’s get this behind us.”

President Abeita explained that his experience as a Judge required him to give weight to the language used in Lucero’s letter of resignation.  Abeita felt that the letter showed that the resignation was to be effective, if Lucero was confirmed.

The tribal attorney, Pablo Padilla, stated that the “resignation was contingent on Cougar being confirmed.” He felt the “resignation letter was invalid.” He also explained that the Council never officially “declared a vacancy.”

Juan Rey Abeita brought the matter to a close by making a motion to allow Cougar to retain his Council seat memorializing the decision of the Court that his appointment was null.  The vote carried with 6 in favor 4 opposed and 2 abstaining. Voting in favor of the motion were Juan Rey Abeita, Barbara Sanchez, Cynthia Jaramillo, Ralph Douglas Jiron, Phillip Jiron and President James Abeita.  Voting against the motion were Vice-President Michael Allen Lente, Secretary Verna Teller, Josephine Padilla and Fernando Abeita.  Abstaining were Larry Jaramillo and Joseph “Cougar” Lucero.

Special Election Cancelled

After the discussion on Joseph Lucero’s resignation, Michael Allen Lente made a motion to rescind his prior motion to proceed with a special election. The vote carried with 8 in favor, 2, opposed and 2 abstaining.

Health Care

David Antel, Director of the Isleta Health Clinic, gave a report to the Council about the new federal laws on health care, which will require all persons to carry health care insurance.  Persons that do not carry health insurance may face a tax penalty from the Internal Revenue Service. Members of Indian tribes may be exempt from the requirement. Problems may arise for individuals that have Indian blood but are not members of a tribe. The Council will have to decide what type of documentation to issue to individuals that are not members of the Pueblo but are descendants.

Sole Source Contract for Elderly Center

The Isleta Tribal Council approved a resolution for a sole source contract in the amount of $ 188,200 with Responsive Inspections, Inc.  The purpose of the contract is to provide construction inspection services for the Elderly Center and the Assisted Living Facility construction projects. Director of Planning, Shawna Ballay and Patty Jojola presented the resolution to the Council. The justification for the sole source contract versus competitive bidding is due to the emergency nature of the project. Barbara Sanchez made the motion to approve the sole source contract.  The motion carried with 8 in favor 3 opposed and 1 abstaining. Cynthia Jaramillo abstained. Verna Teller, Fernando Abeita and Larry Jaramillo opposed the motion.

The Council adjourned for Lunch and reconvened for their afternoon session. Governor Torres was absent, Lt. Governor Isidor Abeita Absent; and  Lt. Governor Antonio Chewiwi was present.

Election Ordinance

The Council discussed potential problems concerning the “Election Ordinance.”  The primary concern is whether the Council may delegate powers of the Secretary of the Council and the Council itself to an Election Board. The Isleta Tribal Constitution specifies that the Secretary of the Council is responsible for “supervision” of elections. The Constitution also establishes specific duties for the Secretary during an election and specifies that the incumbent Council is responsible for resolving disputes and controversies growing out of an election.

This Council recognizes that there are appearances of impropriety and conflicts for the Secretary of the Council and the Council itself to be involved in the election process and in the process of resolving election disputes. They want to resolve the problem by establishing a Board that will be responsible for assuming responsibility for supervising elections and resolving disputes.  The question is whether the Council may delegate those responsibilities to a Board.  The Constitution may prohibit the Council from delegating those responsibilities to a separate Board.  If so, it will be necessary for tribal members to cure the problem by amending the Constitution.  Council member Fernando Abeita commented that the Council needs to amend the Constitution instead of creating an Election Ordinance.

Tribal Enrollment Committee

Joseph Jaramillo, the Chairman of the Tribal Enrollment Committee, submitted a list of tribal members to fill an upcoming vacancy on the Committee. The Committee recommended:

  1. Michael Lucero
  2. Frank Robert Jojola
  3. Edward Lente
  4. Bernadette Cotton
  5. Mary Belgrade
  6. Mary Ethyl Trujillo
  7. Elsie Olguin
  8. John Cherino
  9. Ernest Cherino
  10. Diego Lujan
  11. Michael Lucero
  12. Ralph Jojola Jr.
  13. Cecelia Curley
  14. Teresita Abeita (Lente)
  15. Roselie Lucero (Jaramillo)
  16. Margaret Abeita
  17. Regina Toya
  18. Mike Jiron

The persons nominated by the Council were:

  1. Kateri Jojola (Nominated by Barbara Sanchez);
  2. Michael Jiron (Nominated by Verna Teller);
  3. Francis Abeita (Nominated by Josephine Padilla);
  4. Mary Ann Johnson (Nominated by Josephine Padilla); &
  5. David Lente (Nominated by Juan Rey Abeita).

Council member Barbara Sanchez advocated for Kateri Jojola. She commented that Jojola had the courage to challenge a council member.  Sanchez wanted someone young on the Committee. Cynthia Jaramillo also stated that we needed young people on the committee.  Jaramillo stated that she does not know all of the young families in the community and that we need someone on the committee that knows the younger families. Jaramillo said she wanted someone like Juan Rey’s age on the Committee. Jaramillo suggested that the Council vote by secret ballot.

The Council voted by secret ballot.

Michael Lucero           1 vote;

Kateri Jojola                3 votes;

Cecelia Hurley            1 vote;

Edward Lente               1 vote;

Francis Abeita             1 vote;

John Cherino               1 vote;

Mary Ann Johnson      1 vote.

After the votes were counted, Barbara Sanchez made a motion as per secret ballot that the Council confirm Kateri Jojola to the committee.  Juan Rey Abeita seconded the motion. The vote carried with 5 in favor 1 opposed and 4 abstaining.

By Christopher Abeita

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