Newhalen village council president survives voter recall petition

Dec 14, 2017

Citing a Dec. 2016 DUI and alleged car theft, 18 people signed a petition to start a recall of Newhalen council president Henry Olympic last October, but that was short of the threshold to trigger a vote.

In October, Newhalen Village president Henry Olympic ran unchallenged for another term on the council. Days after his reelection, one member started a recall, citing an arrest in Anchorage in late 2016. That effort fell short, gaining about half the signatures required by the council’s rules.

Olympic ran into trouble on a trip to Anchorage that Newhalen Village does not dispute was work-related. At 2:43 a.m., Anchorage Police responded to the Carrs on West Northern Lights on a report a car had been stolen. The owner said he had left his car running in the parking lot, saw a man climb inside and start to drive off. He was able to stop the car, drag the man out, and call police. Police “contacted an intoxicated Henry Olympic,” who performed poorly on field sobriety tests and “provided a breath sample of .192 at 4:13 a.m.,” reads a sworn affidavit filed by the prosecutor.

Olympic was booked on a misdemeanor DUI charge and a felony car theft charge. The prosecutor dropped the felony in return for a plea on the DUI, saying it was an appropriate resolution for this incident. He was sentenced to 30 days of electronic monitoring, two years’ probation, a $3000 fine, and had his license suspended for a year. Olympic was also convicted of a 2008 DUI after he crashed into a vehicle in Iliamna when he was more than three times over the legal limit.

His was just one of a couple thousand car theft cases APD has responded to in the past year, and while it may not have been the crime of the century, the news did not sit well with all members of his tribe.

“When I heard that Henry Olympic, who is the president of Newhalen Tribe, was arrested for DUI while he was on a sanctioned trip, and stole a vehicle, that just really hit a nerve,” said Effa Hill, a member of the Newhalen tribe who now lives Lincoln, Nebraska.

She does not believe this conduct is becoming of Olympic’s office and began looking into the tribe’s constitution and bylaws for a way to take action. Article IV, section 1A reads that a council member may be removed by a majority vote of the other council members if he or she has been convicted “by a court of competent jurisdiction of a felony offense while in office.”

Newhalen Village held that since Olympic had not been convicted of a felony, there was no reason for his removal.

But Section 1B says that “other misconduct reflecting on the dignity and integrity of the Tribal Council or Newhalen Village,” is also grounds for removal, and that “conduct unbecoming” is not necessarily limited to the four reasons listed in the constitution.

Hill felt the other council members should have taken earlier action against Olympic.

“They’re making excuses for his behavior, they’re letting this continue to happen,” she said. “It is not ok for this to continue to happen. This is nothing against him as a person, but he does have a seat on the Newhalen Tribal Council, and that’s where my concern is.”

After the October election, when she was in the village for a family funeral, Hill informed the tribe that she would seek Olympic’s ouster by recall. That meant gathering signatures for a petition which could trigger a community vote. It was clear she needed 20 percent of the eligible voters to sign, but she was not clear on how many eligible voters were on the rolls. The tribal administration, she said, did not provide that information before she started looking for signatures.

For a couple of days in October, Hill took the petition around the village, talking about her purpose, the constitution and bylaws.

“I got a lot of agreement, they were happy that someone was finally doing this, but I also got a lot of people who were afraid to sign because of retaliation,” she said.

Twenty signed on, but two later asked to have their names removed. She later learned she needed 20 percent of 169 voters, or 34.

“One of our non-resident tribal members recently circulated a petition for recall. The petition failed. It failed because the number of signers was far below the minimum set by our constitution,” tribal administrator Joanne Wassillie wrote in a two-page letter to KDLG.

After she “failed to obtain any support within the community,” Wassillie said Hill then “besieged” the tribe staff, council, and now the media with “false and misleading statements.”

The “single dissenter” has spread rumors and lies that have “disparaged the Council and Village’s elected officials.”

As to the arrest that triggered the attention, Wassillie said Newhalen Village expects the highest standards from its elected officials. But like private citizens, “our elected officials are entitled to their time and their privacy when not conducting tribal business.” She wrote that Newhalen Village did not help cover Olympic’s legal bills, did not interfere with the recall effort, and did not retaliate against any who signed.

“Our form of government respects all views, and encourages citizen participation, including the rights of recall and citizen initiatives,” she wrote. “We respect the rights of dissenters to disagree, but we also request that the dissent be honest and in good faith.”

In 2014, the council did retaliate against two council members who had sought an intervention by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for what they believed to be rampant problems with the tribe’s management and finances. They were removed from office.  

“The Tribal Council did so after discovering Council Members Greg Anelon and Agnes Rychnovsky had contacted the Bureau of Indian Affairs with unsubstantiated allegations of “fraudulent expenses”, and expressed their intent to fire Joanne Wassillie as Tribal Council Administrator,” reads a November 2014 letter from Henry Olympic to the membership. “As a result … the Bureau of Indian Affairs labeled Newhalen Village a “high risk” contractor and jeopardized the Tribe’s receipt of federal funds.”

Village politics are often a family affair: whistleblower Greg Anelon is Effa Hill’s brother, and administrator Joanne Wassillie is Henry Olympic’s sister.

Hill did not succeed in her effort to recall Olympic but said she is glad she tried. Members in a lot of tribes across the state and country, she said, often find themselves frustrated by similar problems.

“And they also don’t feel like they can have a voice because of retaliation if they do speak out against their tribe and what is going on in the office, and how their own constitution and bylaws are not being followed. Something needs to be done, we need to have our voices heard, and this is the first step for me.”

dave@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281