PESHAWBESTOWN — An attorney for six fired tribal employees said they will be reinstated, but none of the ex-employees have heard official word they’ll be back on the job.
Brett Fessell, a former fish and wildlife coordinator for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, said the confusion doesn’t surprise him.
“It’s a roller coaster,” he said. “Probably the best one in the world.”
The six Natural Resources Department employees were fired for shooting a .22 rifle off their office building’s back deck on a cold day in March. They aimed at targets set on a snowy, empty beach of West Grand Traverse Bay.
“It was clear that the tribal manager didn’t know all the facts prior to the termination,” said Traverse City attorney Craig Elhart, who represented the fired employees. “I made a proposal to the tribe that they be reinstated and have two weeks of unpaid leave. As I understand it, it was approved by the tribal council Wednesday. We are now finalizing issues of compensation.”
Officials from the Grand Traverse Band did not return calls for comment, but tribal Chairman Al Pedwaydon wrote an email to the Record-Eagle. It said the tribal council authorized reinstatement, but with no back pay.
“Our General Council was to make the offer,” his email said.
Elhart’s understanding was the employees would receive full back pay, minus two weeks.
The band held a lengthy appeals hearing this week at the Medicine Lodge. It included Elhart, the tribal manager, two tribal attorneys, the fired employees, and Ellen Ance, the human resources director at the time the employees were suspended. James McCormack, a former 13th Circuit Court judge, presided over the hearing.
Fired employee Desmond Berry said the apparent return-to-work decision is good news, but added he hasn’t heard from the tribe.
“Only our hired gun, Mr. Elhart,” said Berry, the band’s former environmental services coordinator.
Bill Bailey, the tribe’s former chief game warden, said it’s too early to make much comment.
“I’m glad of the decision they arrived at. At this point in time, we haven’t got anything from HR. I’m sure it’s coming.”
The tribal members initially were suspended, and then fired on April 30 without pay. Berry said five of the six were able to get by on accrued vacation pay. He added Elhart was able to persuade the tribe to provide pay during most of their suspension.
Bailey said they were trying out the .22 rifle as a quieter option to .357 magnums that he and other employees had been using.
“If there is a sick animal, it’s a safer method, it’s not as loud,” Bailey said. “We view it as a more efficient option than a higher power handgun.”
Bailey said there was no one around when they were shooting the rifle.
“If there had been anyone around, it wouldn’t have taken place,” Bailey said.
A coworker, Brian Napont, saw them shoot the gun and filed a complaint.
“They were supposed to be working,” Napont said in an earlier Record-Eagle interview. “Three of them were environmentalists, and they have no business shooting guns. Can you imagine people at the Watershed (Center) blasting away?”
Elhart contended the band has no policy that covers the infraction, particularly since conservation officers potentially shoot guns every day.
The state Department of Natural Resources has no jurisdiction over what happens on tribal or private land, although a backstop is highly recommended, said spokeswoman Sarah Lapshan.
After the firing, dozens of tribal members later packed a Tribal Council meeting and demonstrated with signs to protest the employees’ firing.
Former tribal Chairman Derek Bailey praised the six for their lifelong commitment to protect the environment and treaty rights. The staff has a combined experience of more than 90 years with the band. Berry was awarded the 2013 Environmental Professional of the Year by the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council.