When COVID-19 came to Minnesota in March, face-to-face community meetings were put on hold, but given the small number of cases in Pine County as of mid-August, Representative Wally St. John decided it was time for people to gather in person once again.
On August 19, more than 60 District III Band members gathered for information, a hearty meal, and catch-up conversations with friends and family.
Wally welcomed the crowd and introduced Commissioner of Natural Resources Katie Draper and Licensing Agent Vanessa Gibbs, who gave an update on the upcoming manoominike and hunting seasons.
Katie said the DNR staff had been pared from 54 to 17 during recent months due to the pandemic and closure of the casinos, and she thanked those staff members who had stepped up and kept the department functioning.
Vanessa encouraged Band members to sign up for the text alert systems to receive information about netting, ricing, and hunting.
Vanessa also announced that she had stepped down as Chair of the JOM (Johnson O’Malley) committee at Hinckley-Finlayson Schools, and those duties who be taken over by Maria Costello and Trisha Moose. Vanessa reminded families that children need to be enrolled in JOM to receive benefits, and they can be from any tribe, not just Mille Lacs.
Wally informed the crowd about the activities of the Legislative Branch, especially the revision of Mille Lacs Band statutes. He explained that it is a time-consuming process because leaders need to follow the rule of law as they make revisions.
He talked about the process the Band Assembly follows when revising statutes, beginning with the identification of necessary changes, followed by discussion with Legislative Branch attorneys, who prepare a "red-line" version to bring back for review. After discussion of the red-line version, more changes may be made before it is brought back for inclusion in a Legislative bill. Once the bill is approved, it must be reviewed by the Executive Branch and signed by the Chief Executive.
"That’s the short version," said Wally. "Some titles have an immense amount of information, so it’s gonna take a while."
Wally said the Legislative Branch and Executive Branch work well together, acknowledging that unity is necessary for the Band to move forward in a good way.
"It may be slow, but we do not stop," said Wally. "The worst thing we can do in leadership is to stop progressing."
In response to a question from the audience, Wally talked about a new sober housing project that will open in District III.
He said providing a safe place for people leaving treatment was a priority of his when taking office. "If we just thrust them back into the community, what happens? The majority of the time they fall back into the same habits," said Wally. "We have to have someplace safe for them. We have to show them that we care."
Newly reelected Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin was also in attendance to offer thanks to her supporters and give a preview of the next four years.
"We’re always looking for solutions," said Melanie. "If you need help, please let us know so we can do something. A lot of our Band members work for the Band because they want things to be better for all of us."