Second time's a charm for BITAM
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Under the guise of improving trust management services to individual and tribal beneficiaries, the Department of Interior plans to reorganize the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Office of Special Trustee (OST), two agencies whose bitter rivalries have hindered real reform to the tune of $700 million.

But the proposal announced yesterday goes much further than trust. While there are indeed changes -- mostly at the regional and agency level -- in the handling of billions of dollars in Indian funds, the bureaucratic shuffle affects a wide array of BIA functions, offices and programs.

Call it BITAM-plus.

The most visible change is the elevation of the deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs, a position now held by former GOP Senate aide Aurene Martin. Under the reorganization, the "principal" will oversee four major areas, including two new bureaucratic posts.

One of those is the deputy assistant secretary for economic development. This post replaces the Office of Economic Development, currently headed by George Gover, and will encompass his small staff in addition to the Office of Indian Gaming, now run by George Skibine. Self-governance and self-determination also get placed here and will handle contracting and compacting with tribes.

The other new post is the deputy for information resources management. Brian Burns, who was just hired as the BIA's chief information officer in June, will be promoted to oversee all areas related to information technology.

Under Martin, there is a deputy assistant secretary for management. This position, however, is largely unchanged from the role now held by Jim McDivitt.

But gone is the deputy commissioner for Indian affairs, which has historically been the most important position at the BIA because it has direct line authority over the 12 BIA regions. Last held by Sharon Blackwell, who retired from federal service in May, power is now consolidated under Aurene Martin.

Martin also gets more direct control over federal recognition through a new Office of Federal Acknowledgment. Under the BIA's current structure, the 12 researchers that handle the touchy subject report to the Office of Tribal Services, which is run by Mike Smith.

Similarly, the Office of Indian Education Programs, headed by Bill Mehojah, gets realigned under Aurene Martin. Currently, Mehojah reports directly to Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb.

The Office of American Indian Trust (OAIT), directed by Jim Pace, is dissolved entirely under the new proposal. Its functions, which are a mix of trust, cultural and government-to-government, are scattered throughout the new BIA.

Although McCaleb said yesterday that the "Indian Trust Management Plan" was based on 10 months of talks with Indian Country, only a select few tribal leaders will recognize the changes. They were hand picked by the department to receive a preview, and after word leaked out yesterday of a pending proposal, no other tribes were invited to attend the private, closed-door briefing.

The rest of Indian Country is expected to receive more information starting today. Whether the ideas will be embraced remains to be seen.

But the restructuring doesn't gut the BIA, the primary complaint about BITAM. It will in fact require more hires at the regional and reservation level, which should please those who feared a rollback of the Indian preference policy.

Under the proposal, OST appears to make inroads in Indian Country with the addition of regional trust administrators and trust officers. But these positions are mirrored at the BIA, a reflection of a concerted effort by tribal leaders who sat on the task force and the Bush administration to reduce the role of OST, which is largely managed by non-Indians with banking and trust expertise.*

The success of the plan also depends on other components of the reform effort. One is an "as-is" study of the BIA's trust system being developed by EDS Corporation, a management consulting firm. The report is almost complete and will lead to a "to-be" model of where the BIA needs to go.

Second is a legislative package to create a deputy secretary or undersecretary at the department level. The tribes and government officials agree here but sharply diverge on attempts to bring more accountability to the Indian trust by creating an independent oversight commission and devising legally enforceable trust management standards.

The final piece is the department's court reform plan. Although this only affect the trust fund accounts of individual Indians, the Interior plans to fold the reorganization proposal and a separate one to address fractionation of Indian lands into the plan, due by January 6, 2003.

*Ed. Note: OST's senior management is largely non-Indian but its employee base is staffed mostly by American Indians. An earlier version of the story used the word "staffed" instead of "managed."

Relevant Documents:
New BIA-OST Organization | New BIA | Old BIA

Today on Indianz.Com:
McCaleb anounces reorganization (12/5)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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