Easterns struggle to fill council seats

North Stonington - Members of the Eastern Pequot Tribe selected a new tribal councilor in elections Saturday, leaving five vacancies on the 14-seat council.

Joanne Silva Njoku, who ran unopposed, was elected to the council.

In separate balloting, Councilor Joseph Perry Jr., a former commander of the Connecticut State Police, was elected treasurer, and Councilor Katherine Sebastian Dring was elected corresponding secretary.

Dennis Jenkins, the council chairman, acknowledged Monday that the tribe has had difficulty filling council seats and that 14 seats is too many.

"We've been talking about downsizing to nine," he said. "But that will take a change in our constitution. In the meantime, we've got to fill as many seats as we can."

Two council members whose terms expired this year - Agnes Cunha and Sheri Jones, the former corresponding secretary - chose not to seek re-election, according to Jenkins.

An unforeseen vacancy occurred when Councilor Thomas Perry, a brother of Joseph Perry Jr., died July 16 of pancreatic cancer. He was 70.

Jenkins estimated that fewer than 50 tribal members voted in Saturday's election. The tribe numbers between 1,100 and 1,200 members, including 600 to 700 adults, he said.

Members have to meet certain requirements to run for the council, with a rule on attending meetings proving to be the main stumbling block, according to Jenkins.

A member must have attended at least 50 percent of the tribal meetings held the previous year to qualify as a council candidate. That can mean attending as few as four meetings in a year, Jenkins said, since the tribe typically meets eight times a year.

"I'm not sure I want to change that requirement," he said. "We're pretty strict about it."

Joseph Perry Jr. served as state police commander in the early 1990s. He later joined Foxwoods Resort Casino's security division, serving as an investigator.

Jenkins had been acting as tribal treasurer since the 2012 departure of former Chairman Brian Geer, who resigned amid allegations he misused more than $60,000 in tribal funds. Geer pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree larceny. His case is still pending.

Jenkins said he and Joseph Perry Jr. were to travel today to Mashpee, Mass., to testify at a public meeting on proposed changes in the federal-recognition process for Indian tribes.

The Eastern Pequots were granted federal recognition in a 2002 U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs decision that was rescinded three years later. The proposed changes in the process could enable the tribe to re-apply for recognition.

Federally recognized tribes are eligible to seek certain grants and to request that land be taken into trust for economic development, including casinos.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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