PESHAWBESTOWN — A co-worker of the six tribal employees who shot a .22 rifle off their office building deck alleged they endangered a nearby residence, potentially polluted Lake Michigan with lead bullets, and violated human resources policy.
“They were supposed to be working,” said Brian Napont, a Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians tribal member. “Three of them were environmentalists, and they have no business shooting guns. Can you imagine people at the Watershed (Center) blasting away?”
Tribal officials fired the six Natural Resources Department employees in early May for shooting from a tribal building toward paper targets placed on the shoreline. They said they were sighting in a .22 rifle intended for conservation work. The building sits on non-tribal land in Peshawbestown.
Napont said he spoke to the Record-Eagle on Friday as a tribal member and not as a tribal employee. Napont worked with the employees and witnessed the event, he said.
Tribal members packed a Tribal Council meeting and demonstrated this week to protest the employees' punishment. They'd already been suspended for nearly seven weeks. A hearing to appeal the terminations is scheduled for the first two weeks of June, said Craig Elhart, attorney for the fired employees.
Napont said he has compassion for some of the fired employees, particularly a staffer who was relatively new to the department.
But he believes the employees were criminally liable since they were firing a weapon from a public building within 400 feet of a residence.
"They teach firearms safety. They should have known better," he said.
Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich said their actions were did not violate any county or state law.
“We wouldn’t consider it a safe practice because the bullet might ricochet off the water, but there’s no criminal liability in doing something like that," he said. "It was more stupidity than anything.”
State law bans hunting wild game or birds within 450 feet of another person’s home or related structure without a person’s permission. It does not address target shooting or shooting from a public building, Borkovich said.
“They all got fired, so there must have been personalities involved. One guy was going on 30 years working there, so this jeopardizes his retirement and everything,” Borkovich said.
The tribe's own legal code bans discharge of a firearm near a building "so as to knowingly or recklessly endanger a person or property." The federal Clean Water Act bans the discharge of any pollutant, including lead, into any navigable waterway without a permit.
Napont said he did not see any fishermen in the vicinity of the target practice, but believes the shooting was reckless and contradicted the tribe's goal of protecting safety and the environment.
“Accidents do happen,” he said.
Tanya Raphael, who is leading a recall effort of several Tribal Council members, said other tribal members are not only angry about the firings, but also an alleged pattern of harassment and intimidation since the election of a new Tribal Council.