Ernie Stensgar offered his hand – the Benewah County Commissioners gladly accepted.
Mr. Stensgar, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, met with the Benewah County Commissioners Monday. He said it had a long time since representatives of the two governments had met formally and that he wanted to renew the relationship.
“I did not come with my hand out, I came with my hand extended,” Mr. Stensgar told the commissioners.
“We will work with you any way we can,” Commissioner Jack Buell said.
The tribe and the county have been at loggerheads in the past. Those battles, which included disputes over dock fees assessed by the tribe and county efforts to collect for solid waste disposal, damaged the relationship between the two entities.
The brief meeting Monday, however, could be an indication the relationship will improve.
“We shouldn’t be at odds with each other,” Commissioner Phil Lampert said. “We should try to help each other that is for sure. There are things we can work together on while there will be some things we will never agree on.”
Mr. Stensgar served as chairman for some 20 years before he was replaced by Chief Allan in 2005. The council elected Mr. Stensgar chairman last year. He was re-elected this year.
He endorsed the idea of improving the working relationship between the county and the tribe.
“We have issues that we work with Phil on all the time,” Mr. Stensgar said.
He added that the tribe has given money to schools and organizations in the St. Maries area throughout the years. Most recently, Mr. Stensgar said the tribe donated $20,000 for improvements to the St. Maries city pool.
Mr. Buell asked if the tribe would consider changing how dock fees are assessed. He said a one-time fee, similar to how the state assesses fees, would be a welcome change.
“I’m not saying how much the fee should be, that’s up to the tribe to decide, but it would certainly be a nice change,” he said.
In 2001 the Supreme Court ruled the tribe owned the beds and banks of the lower third of Lake Coeur d’Alene and several miles of the lower St. Joe River. Following that decision, the tribe began assessing fees to dock owners – much like the state does. The state fee is collected once while the tribe collects the fee annually.
Mr. Stensgar did not commit to any changes but said he would discuss the issues with tribal leaders.
Commissioner Bob Short said the county and the tribe need to continue to meet.
“We need to be sure we keep the lines of communication open,” Mr. Short said.
Mr. Stensgar said the tribe is always ready to discuss issues and invited the commissioners to attend a tribal council meeting. The commissioners said they planned to do so and thanked Mr. Stensgar for coming to their meeting.
“We appreciate you Ernie, that has never changed,” Mr. Buell said.