Photo courtesy Bruce Renville
Bruce Renville, Tribal Chairman of Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate.

Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Reinstate Tribal Chairman After Ordering Mass Drug Testing

Sheena Louise Roetman

Bruce Renville, Tribal Chairman of Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, was reinstated as chairman late Friday afternoon after a 10-day suspension resulting from backlash to ordered drug testing.

The suspension came as a result of Renville’s order for all tribal administrative employees to undergo drug testing on August 17, which the council considered to be “improper conduct, misuse of office and malfeasance of office, including gross partiality or oppression,” according to the council’s notice of suspension.

“It was a little more than 350 people,” Renville said. “We don’t know the actual numbers yet – some tested positive for illegal drugs, but not many. Others tested positive for prescription drugs they had legally obtained from doctors for medical reasons.”

The tribal council voted for suspension on September 4, while Renville, 71, was in the hospital for a routine medical procedure. Renville received a letter via email on Sept. 9 informing him of the motion and stating, “Your actions exceeded your position as Tribal Chairman.” The letter is signed Crystal Owen, Tribal Secretary, who could not be reached for comment at the time of publication.

“Some people were concerned with how the test was conducted,” Renville said. Although he couldn’t go into the specifics of those concerns, he did mention employee confidentiality and privacy rights. The Sept. 4 letter also mentions these concerns and states “no justification provided by your office shows the drug testing was performed pursuant to policy or law, which could lead to violations of the Indian Civil Rights Act as well.”

A majority of five out of seven total council votes were needed for removal, but only two district representatives voted against reinstatement – Long Hollow and Enemy Swim, according to Allison Renville, media consultant to the chairman, who is also her uncle.

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“The council looked at the situation and decided I made some mistakes,” Renville said. “So we agreed, the council and myself, to work together to fix our drug policies and processes, but also to work together on other pressing issues.”

“There were confidentiality issues,” said David Flute, councilman for the Lake Traverse District. “We need to come together in a joint effort to stop the endemic of meth, but we also need to ensure tribal employee rights aren’t violated.”

“This was a disagreement on the interpretation of policy,” said former South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson. “My advice to the tribe is to look at the policy and clarify the specifics.”

According to a memo dated August 17 from Chief of Sisseton-Wahpeton Police Gary Gaikowski to Renville, tribal employees at the administrative building were drug tested and the police department and Game and Fish department worked together in “monitoring the building because of so many exits.”

A memo dated August 18 from Nicolette Knudson, a legislative aide, to the executive committee, Gaikowski and Colleen Eastman, Director of Human Resources, notes that the mandatory testing was first announced at 10:01 a.m., immediately after which two drive-offs were reported by police staff. This memo states that the police department reported 15 fails and that “testing of other tribal programs continues today.”

A summary following the memo states that testing was conducted over the course of four days, August 17 to 21, and that tribal programs including “administration building programs, LTUC, Commodities, Food Pantry, Head Start, Dakota Pride, Facilities Management, Tribal Roads, Little Steps Daycare, the Fitness Center, Gaming Commission, Veteran’s Association, Public Defender’s Office and the health programs located at the WWKMHCC.”

According to the letter, Renville did not speak with Human Resources or seek legal counsel before initiating the drug testing, and that Owen and Garryl Rousseau Sr., Tribal Vice Chairman, were “only provided notice of the drug testing minutes prior to it commencing.”

The letter states that mandatory drug tests can only be ordered by the chairman under certain circumstances: pre-employment, mandatory annual anniversary testing, a reported on-the-job accident (for liability and insurance purposes), routine random selection and reasonable suspicion.

The testing summary, however, lists four items as “justification for this administrative decision,” including:

– “The recent passage of a ‘banishment’ resolution made it clear that Council wanted a tough stance on drug use on the reservation, so we should start with tribal employees.

– Human Resources and tribal police indicated that annual drug testing per Personnel Policies has not taken place for three to five years.

– Pre-employment drug testing as been spotty.

– A recent program drug test revealed a fail rate of about 25-percent for that small sample.”

The summary then states that of the preliminary field test results, 36 people failed. “However,” the summary says, “no assumptions can be made, because some of these fails may be false positives, or the employee may have a valid prescription.” According to the summary, the samples are sent in for lab work after preliminary results, at which time “the decision to terminate or reinstate the employee will be made.”

Minutes from the September 4 meeting show that a motion to “return all employees in connection with the mass drug test back to work in their original positions” was passed unanimously. The minutes also express, however, that the decision “is not in support of individuals that may abuse drugs, but is made in response to the manner in which the drug test was called and conducted.”

“Even if a council member disagreed, Renville’s actions were done with the right goals in mind,” Johnson said. “The chairman made very clear today that he wants to move forward from this, and I see it as a real positive for the tribe. A very thoughtful, professional discussion regarding drug use in the community took place, and I feel even more supportive now than I did this morning.”

“All stand by the chairman’s intentions,” Flute said, “and we are considering conducting a study on the possible shortcomings of the testing.”

“I am very thankful for the opportunity to work with the tribe again,” Renville said, “because we need to work jointly to fix these problems.”

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