For the first time in recent memory there is an apparent divide between members of the Seneca County Board of Supervisors on how to move forward regarding the Cayuga Nation.
The County and Nation have been locked in a now-decades long legal battle, which appeared to be nearing conclusion. That was until at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting- they entered executive session to consider their legal options moving forward.
Following the session, Chairman Bob Hayssen, R-Varick, said the Board would remain committed to the issue, but in practical terms, the plan is much less clear. “We’re going to see this thing through, because we have to,” Hayssen said last Wednesday. His comments followed a 30-minute span of the previous night’s board meeting where supervisors debated whether to enter executive session at all.
Beyond mounting frustration over a lack of legal wins in the court battle to get the Cayuga Nation to pay owed property taxes, there is growing frustrating among some supervisors about how much of this debate should even be happening behind closed doors.
“We shouldn’t be doing it in executive session anymore,” Supervisor Cindy Lorenzetti, D-Fayette, said afterward. “If we can invite members of the public into executive session, people who sit on an advisory board, then we can have the debate in public.”
A debate played out ahead of a vote to enter executive session over whether member of the county’s Citizens Advisory Board should be allowed into the session. Richard Ricci, Russell Wheeler, Ross Parks, Ken Patchen and Bob Shipley comprise the advisory committee, which is a sub-committee of the Board’s Indian Affairs Committee.
“There is no reason given to enter executive session and I’m still not really hearing a reason,” Supervisor Kyle Barnhart, U-Lodi, said before a vote. “It was also an honest reminder that we don’t always need executive session to discuss difficult issues. The public deserves to know where we stand and not keep these issues shrouded behind closed doors,” he added after the meeting. “I believe in open and transparent government, even when the topic is delicate and difficult to navigate.”
“We wasted a lot of years of our lives here, I guess,” Hayssen added. “I guess do you want to tell the Indians they won. Are you giving up? Why would we show the Indians our cards?”
Days later came a scathing statement from Cayuga Nation Representative Clint Halftown, who decried Seneca County’s process as “the definition of ‘insanity.’”
“Albert Einstein said ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ After listening to the Seneca County Board of Supervisors discuss the Cayuga Nation at the end of its July 13 meeting, it appears, sadly and predictably, that a majority of the county’s town supervisors are intent on serving as living examples of Mr. Einstein’s definition,” Halftown began.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently threw out Seneca County’s last attempt to tax properties owned by the Nation. This came after the federal government also denied a land into trust application.
“After the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Seneca County’s latest attempt to tax Cayuga Nation property last month, exposing the county’s decades-long legal strategy for the fantasy it is, most members of the board still believe they can sue the Nation and its reservation out of existence,” Halftown continued. “It is hard to admit you are wrong, especially when being wrong means you have spent millions of dollars in taxpayer funds chasing taxes you will never collect. That dynamic likely explains why most board members wanted to discuss their strategy about the Cayuga Nation in executive session. Better to vent their frustrations behind closed doors, where racist references to Native Americans as “marauders and thugs” can be kept from the public’s ears, and where lawyers can privately explain that the board is out of options, sparing supervisors the embarrassment of having their foolish legal strategy and waste of public assets exposed.”
He applauded the supervisors who thought a new approach would be better.
“The Nation applauds those supervisors who were honest enough to call the county’s antagonistic strategy the failure that it is. These supervisors could learn from the Nation’s experience starting 20 years ago and convince the County that it is time for a new plan. The Nation will not hold its breath waiting for the county to change course, but it will welcome positive relations if reasonable voices prevail,” Halftown concluded.
Less than a week after that session it became clear that the Nation intended to continue on its land purchasing path, buying a longtime restaurant that sits on Lower Lake Road in Seneca Falls.