Spokane Regional Transportation Council, Al French

No Indians Allowed

What Other Word is There for Al French’s Behavior Other Than Racist?

For the better part of seven years, Spokane County Commissioner Al French has successfully blocked local Indian tribes from participating in official regional planning efforts. Specifically, the Spokane Regional Transportation Council (SRTC) is a public body composed of Spokane County governmental entities, including all cities, Spokane Transit, Spokane International Airport, and Spokane County itself, as well as private sector real estate development and freight interests. The purpose of SRTC as a body politic is enabled by both state and federal law. Essentially, they hand out a bundle of money for regional transportation improvements. As a result, regional interests are represented on the board, with the exception of Indians, of course. Courtesy of Al French’s behavior, there are no Indians allowed on SRTC.

Evidently, our local tribal governments don’t qualify as participants in our region, at least not according to the old white guy at the County Courthouse. Commissioner Al French is quite specifically excluding our regional Indian tribes from sitting on a board that professes to speak for the region. The painful irony is one of SRTC’s professed core values is “Inclusiveness.

Courtesy of my friends in elected places, I recently came into possession of a letter crafted by Commissioner French to his colleagues on the SRTC board of directors on the topic of Indian inclusion. Let’s just say he might be a little paranoid around the argument that his actions are racist. As Commissioner French states:

“Before I begin, I want to address a false assertion that has been made and I fear is clouding the issue. I understand through third parties that my position on this issue is being characterized as an anti-Tribe bias. Not only is this assertion without merit, but while serving as the Chair of SRTC I personally reached out to the Kalispel Tribal Leadership to encourage them to submit a letter requesting membership on the SRTC so that when we addressed the issue both Tribes would be considered. They did submit the letter and now we can treat both Tribes equally.”

Ah, of course. I’m sure the Kalispels are thankful that Commissioner French is ignoring their request to join SRTC on par with the Spokanes’. Allow me to be the first to thank Al French for his equitable racism.

There is now a long and documented history of our local Indian governmental entities attempting to join SRTC. Letter after letter. Spokesman editorial after Spokesman editorial after Spokesman editorial. The state of Washington, for God’s sake, wrote and adopted into law, quite specifically because of Al French’s racist behavior, that local tribes are now mandated to have voting seats at regional planning tables should a given tribe wish to participate.

Yet, through all of this, Al French has successfully stood in the way of SRTC incorporating Indians on their board. What other adjective is there for Al’s actions other than racist? After all, as you’ll see below, he is attempting to build board consensus around subjugating Indians.

At the end of Commissioner French’s letter, he poses nine questions to his colleagues on the SRTC board of directors. In an effort to ease Al’s mind, allow me to answer them, as follows:

  1. What is the nature of the offer for membership? The same nature as all the other voting members. I recommend treating Indians like they are equals.
  1. What is the nature of the voting rights? Will the Tribes have their own seat, or will they be included with the small cities’ seat because of population? Why is it so complicated? I recommend you work with the tribes and create a mutually agreeable designation for tribes within the interlocal agreement. From an employment and budgetary perspective, the Spokane and Kalispel tribes are larger than every city within the county other than Spokane, larger than Spokane Transit, and larger than Spokane International Airport, all of whom have voting seats.
  1. What dues are going to be required for membership? Here’s a crazy idea, how about you ask the Natives what they’re comfortable paying rather than deciding for them?
  1. Who from the Tribe can sit on the SRTC, an elected member of the Tribal Council or a staff person? Let the tribes decide who they want to speak for them on the SRTC board. It’s not up to you, Commissioner French.
  1. How will weighted voting be addressed/modified. Ah, weighted voting. So long as the white vote counts more than the Indian’s, everything is all good, right?
  1. When will the offer be made? The offer to start the conversation should have been made seven years ago when you and the SRTC board of directors received the first letter from the Spokane Tribe requesting a seat at the table. You’re late.
  1. When will the offer become effective? The legislation only requires that an offer be made before August 1, 2021 to maintain our funding from the state. I recommend you stop calling it an offer and start calling it a collaboration to include the tribal perspective on a regional planning body. This is not a one-way street whereby SRTC makes an offer and the tribes take it or leave it. They will be signatories to the interlocal agreement, on par with everyone else, that creates SRTC. This is the furthest thing from making an offer. It’s an invitation asking the tribes to help make SRTC better. The terms are not dictated by you, Commissioner French, they are developed collaboratively by all.
  1. The effective date of the membership offer will determine whether the Tribes participate in the drafting of the new ILA and its subsequent adoption. Tribal participation in the drafting of the new ILA is not a requirement of the legislation and in fact the legislation anticipates that the new seats are a RESULT of the renegotiated ILA. Keep in mind that the ILA requires 100% approval for adoption. Adding two more votes diminishes the strength of each current members’ vote. Ah… now we get down to it. Power and control. Nothing like starting a letter claiming you’re not a racist and ending it with explicit suggestions that our local tribes need subjugation.
  1. The Tribes are sovereign nations and do not have to adhere to the same rules and requirements that we adhere to. If there is a disagreement, will we require as a condition of membership that all parties to the ILA adhere to the same rules? What will be the court of jurisdiction? Tribe’s are accustomed and comfortable discussing sovereign immunity, Commissioner French. If you do them the courtesy of honestly and respectfully explaining your concern that they might have a legal advantage over all of their peers on SRTC in the event of a dispute, and then honestly and respectfully request that all players on the board be on par from a legal perspective (in the event of a dispute), I’m sure they would be happy to consider your request because it’s not an unfair one. What I don’t recommend you do, however, is make them a take it or leave it offer whereby you demand that they sacrifice their sovereign immunity to participate on the SRTC board. That sort of behavior would indeed be disrespectful.

Al French is suggesting that the SRTC board of directors coordinate around strategies of exclusion, subjugation, and control of local tribal governments. What other adjective is their for his behavior other than racist?