Indian panel to meet in secret despite protest

Commission to discuss tribe's request for state recognition

April 13, 1999|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs plans to meet behind closed doors tonight to discuss an Indian tribe's request for state recognition and the panel's recommendation to grant it.

The commission intends to meet in private, despite protests from The Sun and against the wishes of two tribal groups and others who have an interest in the recognition issue.

Commission Chairman Leland A. McGee said the group has to meet in private because members will be discussing questions posed in a March 28, 1998, letter that former Maryland Housing Secretary Patricia J. Payne wrote to the commission. The state housing department oversees the commission and Indian recognition issues.

The letter raised questions about how the commission arrived at its decision to recommend that the state recognize the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes, known as PCCS. McGee said the commission's attorney advised that the letter was confidential and could not be publicly discussed.

"I have no underlying motives here, no hidden agenda," McGee said. "I'm just doing what our counsel from the assistant attorney general's office has advised us to do."

Mary R. Craig, an attorney for The Sun, sent a letter to Gov. Parris N. Glendening yesterday asking him to intervene in the dispute over the closed-door meeting because he appoints members of the commission and the housing secretary.

"The issue of whether a group is entitled to certification as a Maryland tribe is newsworthy to The Sun and its readers," Craig wrote. "The Sun firmly believes that, except in rare instances, government institutions should operate in public."

The refusal to release Payne's letter and the decision to hold closed-door meetings have "stifled public debate on this issue," Craig wrote. She urged the governor "to direct the housing secretary to release [Payne's letter] to the public and to recommend that the MCIA deliberate in public unless required to do otherwise by law."

A spokesman for Glendening said the governor was busy with legislative matters yesterday and would not have time to consider the issue or comment on it.

Others said the meeting should be open and that Payne's letter should be made public.

Mervin Savoy, the PCCS tribal chairwoman, said she sees no reason for the commission to meet privately to discuss the tribe's petition and does not understand why state officials won't release Payne's letter.

Billy Red Wing Tayac, chief of the Piscataway Indian Nation, a rival group that has fought the PCCS's efforts to gain recognition, also said the Payne letter should be public and that the meeting tonight should be open.

"These people are so secretive it's funny," said Tayac, whose group also is seeking state recognition. "They use words like `in-house memos' and say it can't be released. They have secret meetings and nobody knows what's going on. It's like you're dealing with the CIA. I've never seen nothing like it in my life."

State officials refused to release the Payne letter in their response to a request filed by The Sun last week under the public records act. They previously had refused to release it to a PCCS attorney.

Marge Wolf, deputy secretary of the housing department, wrote that the letter "is protected from disclosure as pre-decisional and deliberative," one of the exceptions to the state's public records law.

"I want to know what's in the letter," Savoy said. "If you are asking for information about us, we would like to know what you're asking. We've said that from Day 1, that it shouldn't be a secret letter."

Tayac disputes the Savoy group's claims of Piscataway ancestry and said the group's real aim is to use state recognition as a steppingstone toward federal recognition, which is necessary to pursue casino gambling ventures in Maryland.

Savoy said her group has carefully documented its Piscataway ancestry and wants state recognition as a matter of pride. She said her group has no interest in casino gambling. Tribal officials have acknowledged that developers with an interest in gambling have put up some of the money the tribe used to research its ancestry.

Barbara Knickelbein of Glen Burnie, who heads a statewide anti-gambling group in Maryland, said she is "very suspicious" of the PCCS's intentions and of the secrecy around the recognition process.

"I'm planning to be there [at tonight's meeting] because I want to object publicly to that letter being kept a secret and that meeting being in secret," she said. "It's too important an issue."

The decision on whether to recognize the PCCS rests with Glendening. The tribe's petition has not reached the governor's desk because the commission has yet to respond to the questions raised in Payne's March 1998 letter.

The commission voted in August 1996 to recommend recognition of the PCCS.

Members of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs are Leland A. McGee, Rose Powhatan, Norris C. Howard Sr., Bobby A. Little Bear, James M. Proctor, Doris Richardson, Gabrielle Tayac and Hankie Poafybitty.

Proctor and Tayac are recused from dealing with matters relating to the petitions because Proctor is PCCS vice chairman and Tayac is a member of the Piscataway Indian Nation and the niece of Billy Red Wing Tayac. The meeting is scheduled for 8 p.m. at the housing department's office in Crownsville.

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