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DOI holding 'to-be' meetings on trust reform
Wednesday, December 3, 2003

The Department of Interior kicked off a series of meetings in Oklahoma City on Tuesday aimed at explaining how a major overhaul of the Indian trust will improve services to tribes and individual beneficiaries.

Donna Erwin, the second highest ranking official at the Office of Special Trustee (OST), said the overall goal is to streamline the way the federal government carries out its fiduciary duties. The "to-be" project will "make things better" by eliminating redundancies, reducing backlogs and providing new trust officers at the local level, she said.

"You will get the nuts-and-bolts questions you should be asking," Erwin said.

Erwin said OST will continue to handle the "financial" side of trust services. Examples of these functions include collection and distribution of oil, gas and other payments.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), on the other hand, will be responsible for management of land and natural resources, such as realty, probate and economic development, Erwin noted.

The split represents a philosophy that came to light when the Bush administration proposed to split the BIA into two entities: one to handle "fiduciary trust" and the other to handle "non-trust" functions.

Tribal leaders rejected BITAM (Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management) and it was eventually taken off the table. But the idea remains, and the "to-be" project is focused on re-engineering those processes deemed to be trust related.

To that end, yesterday's session was divided into five "workshops." They were: Financial Operations (FO), Beneficiary Relationships and Development Management (BRDM), Ownership (OWNERSHIP), Land and Natural Resource Planning (LNRP) and Land and Natural Resource Use and Management (LNRUM).

Daryl LaCounte, a BIA trust reform specialist, and Joel Smith, another specialist, described each as follows:
• FO is an OST responsibility. It involves an accounts receivable and a payment distribution system.
• BRDM is how OST/BIA communicates with beneficiaries. Currently, there are no guidelines so "to-be" will result in standardization across the two agencies.
• OWNERSHIP is a BIA responsibility. It will focus on reforming things like the probate process, the land title system, surveys and conveyances.
• LNRP is another BIA function. It will be used to help beneficiaries develop and implement land-use plans.
• LNRUM also belongs with BIA. It affects processes that require beneficiary consent, such as leasing.

LaCounte called the separation of duties "long overdue." "Any preconceived notions, please set them aside," he said. BIA wants to learn how it can work closer with OST and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), he said.

Echoing comments made by OST officials, Smith said the "to-be" project will free up the time and energy of BIA staff. The trust officers that will be hired at local agencies will serve as the first point of contact for any questions beneficiaries may have, he said.

"'I don't need a trust officer, I need more people,' I hear them saying," Erwin noted earlier in the meeting. "We are going to provide more people on the ground."

The sessions continue today and tomorrow in downtown Oklahoma City and will be followed by other meetings in Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The first was held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, during the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) conference last month. Officials said there was a lot of confusion there, so the meetings are being revised.

Electronic Data Systems (EDS), an information technology firm, has been working closely with OST since July 2001 on various trust reform plans. By March 31, 2003, EDS and OST will have a final "to-be" model ready for internal review and approval.

"To-be" was preceded by the "as-is" project, in which a team of DOI, EDS and tribal representatives took an inventory of trust processes occurring at agencies throughout the country.

Relevant Links:
Office of Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
Trust Fix - http://www.trustfix.com
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust

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