Maine’s governor could restore a long-neglected tribal-state commission that saw seats go unfilled under the previous administration.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ spokesperson Scott Ogden said she plans to nominate new members of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission “as soon as possible.” Such nominations would require hearings and Senate confirmation.
Mills has pledged to address long-tense relations between state government and tribes in Maine after facing criticism for her role as former attorney general in legal action concerning tribal fishing and water quality rights. So far, Mills has spoken out against Native American mascots and appointed a former Penobscot Tribal Council member as a senior adviser.
She has called the inter-governmental commission “neglected” and her campaign website promised she would work to enhance its authority to handle disputes.
“Gov. Mills believes the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission has the potential to improve and strengthen the relationship between the state and Maine tribes,” Ogden said.
The inter-governmental commission, which dates back to the 1980 tribal land claims settlement, is supposed to have 13 members, including six state representatives and a chair. The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Indian Nation each appoint two members.
But the commission last had a full slate of members in early 2013 and gradually became less operational as slots for state representatives went unfilled, according to Managing Director Paul Thibeault. He said that the commission hasn’t been fully operational for several years.
“When state members left for one reason or another they were not replaced and state members with expired terms were not re-appointed,” Thibeault said.
Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage signed a 2011 executive order recognizing a “relationship between equals” among Maine tribes and the state. But the state and tribes later came into conflicts over tribal fishing and other issues, and in 2015, LePage rescinded that order.
He claimed his administration’s efforts had been “unproductive because the state of Maine’s interests have not been respected in the ongoing relationship between sovereigns.”
In past years, the commission’s focus has ranged from high school mascots to land-use disputes and disagreement over salt-water fisheries involving the lucrative elvers industry. Commissioners also have jurisdiction over fishing rules for certain waters in or near Passamaquoddy or Penobscot territory.
The commission can air out issues and make recommendations, but it lacks the formal authority to resolve disputes.
Thibeault said the first step to bolstering the commission is ensuring it has 13 members as required by statute. Thibeault also estimated a commission with more authority would need another $115,000 in annual funding, doubling the budget, for another staff member or consultants.
Mills has shown a commitment to doing so, Thibeault said. In April, the commission sent Mills a list of potential nominees, he said.