The Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma supports the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust and is grateful for the efforts of the Oklahoma Secretary of the Environment, the tribe's chairman, John Berrey, said Friday.
A public decree of support was issued Monday in direct response to published reports of the resignation of trust operations manager Sonya Harris, officials confirmed.
Harris resigned last week, citing multiple reasons for her departure, including disapproval of the trust operation, disappointment in the way appraisal contracts have been handled and attempts by a state office to override the authority of her position.
“We are particularly appreciative of the state Secretary of the Environment Miles Tolbert and his chief of staff, J.D. Strong, for all their efforts in this important matter,” Berrey said.
The Quapaw Tribe is committed to helping in any way possible to assist and support in the relocation, he said.
“It is so important for the citizens living within the Tar Creek site to relocate in order to protect them from the dangers of subsidence,” Berrey said, adding that relocation has added benefits by allowing for a more efficient cleanup that will benefit all of the citizens of Ottawa County.
As the tribe issued its support, a former member of the trust is supportive of Harris' complaints and describes her resignation as a “major loss” for the trust.
“She is a very talented, competent person,” Ed Keheley said. “She had an excellent understanding of the buyout operations and a personal commitment to see the buyout proceed smoothly.”
Keheley resigned earlier this year after accepting a research project that he said would take up most of his time.
The former trust member said he, too, had his concerns of state-level interference and brought his concerns to trust chairman Larry Rice and J.D. Strong of the state secretary of the environment's office.
“In my view, the comments regarding the interference from the secretary of environment's office are valid. From the beginning of the buyout, the secretary's office has been ‘spoon-feeding' the Trust.,” Keheley said. “Recommending a buyout buffer zone boundary three times the size of the area at risk was the first example. Pressuring the trust to accept the unreasonable boundary not based on the risk of subsidence, was obviously intended to achieve some other goal for the state.”
Keheley is also critical of the trust's process of selecting the appraisal contractor, saying that the bid package contained a schedule for the buyout that was never reviewed in advance by the trust.
“I spoke to J. D. Strong at that time and asked that he stop ‘spoon-feeding' the trust because it was important for the trust to develop its own sense of an organized body in order to begin working as a group to be able to make the difficult decisions that lay ahead,” Keheley said.
In April, Keheley brought his concerns of interference to the chairman as he formally declared his resignation from the panel.
“I discussed with the chairman my concerns that J.D. was apparently communicating with the appraisal contractors in addition to Sonja and that I felt that mixed signals were being sent to the contractors,” Keheley said. “I further stated that it was important for only one person on the trust to interface with the contractors and that it should be Sonja since the contract, approved by the trust, specifically designated her as the trust point of contact.”
Strong and Rice have each denied having been advised of any allegations of interference until Harris resigned last week.
Keheley speaks adamantly of the efforts he made to make trust, state and federal officials aware of the brewing problem.
Rice has been equally supportive of state Secretary of the Environment Miles Tolbert and the role the office plays in the process of overseeing the buyout process.
“The trust is at a major crossroads at this point. They are ready to start a major effort in buying out the first phase of structures,” Keheley said. “The process has been moving too slowly, based on comments by the residents involved and the schedule approved by the trust. Maybe it's time for the trust to pause in order to identify and examine the problems impeding progress and make what ever corrections are necessary before proceeding.”