Clint Halftown, the Cayuga Nation’s Bureau of Indian Affairs federal representative, may be coming to speak before the Seneca County Board of Supervisors, sooner rather than later.
Ralph Lott, chair of the Indian Affairs special committee, notified his fellow supervisors about the latest unexpected development during their series of standing committee meetings that happened on Tuesday, July 27.
Two weeks removed from a volatile debate about whether to enter an executive session to explore “options for future court proceedings” against the Nation, Lott met with members of the county’s Citizens Advisory Board, who had a request of their own for supervisors to hear.
Halftown, who penned a recent letter to the editor titled “Seneca County’s view of the Nation is ‘insanity’,” appeared in the Finger Lakes Times, four days later on Sunday, July 17.
Citing FingerLakes1.com’s coverage regarding the contentious meeting in the letter’s subject line, Halftown wrote how it’s “refreshing to hear some voices on the board speak out in favor of a new approach to relations with the Nation” and even “applauds those supervisors who were honest enough to call the county’s antagonistic strategy the failure that it is.”
Now, he’s continuing to extend an olive branch to Seneca County and “welcome positive relations if reasonable voices prevail.”
Reasonable voices have seemingly arisen from the rubble. In a unanimous fashion, all five members of the Citizens Advisory Board have answered Halftown’s call, desiring to guide a future dialogue between him, county supervisors and officials.
“They would like to see that meeting take place,” Lott said. “All five of them want to go forward with a meeting.”
Seneca Falls Supervisor Michael Ferrara, who sits on the Indian Affairs special committee, was unaware of the published letter, claiming he doesn’t get the daily paper since he’s on “fixed income” — only to later find out that the county actually possesses a digital subscription for supervisors like himself to utilize.
Besides that point, Lodi Supervisor Kyle Barnhart, who isn’t on the special committee, says he’s willing to engage in communications with Halftown, but advises the county to “bring all players to the table” — calling upon the state of New York and federal government to get involved as well.
He’s even asking for advice from Cayuga County officials, too.
“If the goal of any meeting is to negotiate a settlement, to put all of our issues to bed, then I think you have to include all of the stakeholders,” Barnhart said.
Lott answered quickly, claiming it’s only “a starting point” for elected officials to renew a strained relationship between Seneca County and the Cayuga Nation.
Walking back his original comment, Barnhart believes the county should include all stakeholders sometime eventually in the foreseeable future. Echoing the sentiments of Barnhart, Lott also agrees with him, but suggests setting up a preliminary meeting for supervisors to establish an agenda and parameters before actually convening with the Nation.
Despite not reading the letter to the editor, Ferrara is still happy to support the motion for an open meeting with Halftown “one hundred-percent,” but fears their discussion might devolve into “a free-for-all.”
Chairman Robert Hayssen brought up an important point to determine whether Halftown’s interest in speaking with supervisors is an invitation — one that’s open to the public or behind closed doors.
Admittedly, Halftown has already aired his opinions on the subject, vocalizing his opposition to closed door conversations, which allow county officials to “vent their frustrations” and ensure “racist references” about Indigenous peoples are “kept from the public’s ears.”
At the same time, however, Barnhart feels that his words are being “turned against him” by supervisors ever since he advocated against the decision to enter an executive session that recently drew stark criticism from the New York Coalition for Open Government.
“I have serious concerns about some of your behavior if we’re going to question Mr. Halftown in open session. I think there’s significant liability for this board and the things some of you are liable to say,” Barnhart said. “If you are seriously intent on moving a negotiation forward, let’s do it in good faith.”
Moving forward in good faith for Barnhart means meeting with Halftown, creating a list of demands from both sides and trying to advance those ambitions.
“I fear that if he’s come up before this board, I think some of y’all will say some rotten things to him,” he later elaborated.
Although specifics surrounding the eventual interaction remain unclear, Hayssen offered to invite Halftown ahead of their next board of supervisors meeting which is slated for Tuesday, August 10.
But whenever that encounter occurs, it’s bound to be a tense one filled with hostility that has been festering for more than four decades, according to Barnhart. And he expects that supervisors need to exercise such hostilities in an effort to protect them from any further embarrassment following 41-years of constant conflict.
Seneca County’s next course of action is aiming to avoid any new endless legal battles, which have been fought by generations of families.
With the Supreme Court of the United States declining the county’s writ for their taxation case to be heard, elected officials didn’t admit legal defeat until a month after the initial ruling in July.
Upon reviewing the county’s retention agreement with Kirkland & Ellis LLP, the highest-grossing law firm in the world, which was responsible for writing the writ, the document revealed that the legal fees were adding up — only after FingerLakes1.com filed a Freedom of Information Law request.
It cost the county $150,000, inclusive of all fees and expenses — just at the certiorari stage. And when the writ had been subsequently denied, it ended the county’s payouts.
Had the writ been approved though, the county would’ve been on the hook for an additional $100,000 as “a bonus” for the certiorari-stage work — on top of another $500,000 if the Supreme Court Justices found in favor of Seneca County’s case.
Shortly after the recent July 14 county meeting concluded, FingerLakes1.com reached out to David Ettman, a county attorney, asking about who flipped the bill when it came to funding the failed writ: county taxpayers or the state’s Article 10 fund.
Ettman declined to answer the aforementioned media request, noting “Article 10 isn’t as straightforward” as the inquiry poses. The same question had been directed to Hayssen’s attention as well, which also went unanswered.
Joe Heath, a long-time Indigenous ally who served as general counsel for the Haudenosaunee Confederacy for decades, stands opposite of Halftown and yet welcomes a renewed approach to addressing the deeply-rooted dispute beyond endless and expensive litigation.
“I’ve always said that the county should stop paying the big firms and sit down with the Nation and the state and work this out,” Heath told FingerLakes1.com. “They really need to understand that going to court is wasting millions of dollars, and has produced no results.”
It seems that the county is at the very least willing to entertain new conversations, which can be a much-needed fresh start for Seneca County relationship’s with the Cayuga Nation.
“You have to understand that over the decades, we’ve come from those counties where they put up those ugly Upstate Citizens for Equality [UCE] signs and deny history, that’s a bad start,” Heath said. “So if there are local leaders willing to take a more diplomatic approach, that’s encouraging.”
Editor’s Note: FingerLakes1.com has already contacted Clint Halftown, BIA federal representative, and still awaiting for a comment following Tuesday evening’s Indian Affairs special committee meeting.