GREEN BAY, Wis. — A proposed new agreement between Green Bay and the Oneida Nation could signal a new path forward for the two governments and codify the city's recognition of tribal sovereignty.
Key to that understanding will be a willingness on the part of Green Bay officials to let go of revenue as the tribe continues moving its original reservation land into a federal trust, a way of preserving tribal ownership that makes the land exempt from city taxes.
Five years ago, city officials weren't willing to do it. Instead, they let a cooperative, intergovernmental agreement with the Oneida lapse rather than give up the city's ability to challenge the tribe's movement of land into the trust.
But some city leaders are ready for change — one the Oneida say will help strengthen relations.
"The Oneida Nation is a sovereign nation, an independent government, one that's certainly on equal footing with the City of Green Bay," Mayor Eric Genrich said.
The new intergovernmental agreement would reinstate annual payments from the Oneida Nation for city services and infrastructure improvements after nearly five years without one. In exchange, the city would agree not to oppose the tribe's efforts to move land into federally-protected, tax-exempt trusts as it seeks to reclaim 75% of its original 65,000-acre reservation by 2033.
About 14% of Green Bay lies within the reservation boundaries, along with parts of Ashwaubenon and nearly the entire village of Hobart.
The Oneida people were originally from New York, but the Nation was established across the reservation in northeast Wisconsin through the Treaty of 1838 signed by the Oneida and the U.S. government. A federal three-judge panel ruled last summer that the 1838 treaty still stands and the reservation's original boundaries remain.
Using mostly casino gaming revenues, the Nation began aggressively buying back its land in the 1990s, eventually recovering about two-thirds of its original 65,000 acres, The Green Bay Press-Gazette reported.
"That's an effort to never lose the land again," Barbara Webster, spokesperson for the Oneida Nation, said last summer. "As we recover the land, we don't sell."
She said reclaiming the land has been important to the success of the Oneida people and has helped to fund tribal services, such as health and education.
The tribe's relationship with Green Bay is not nearly as contentious as its dealings with Hobart, where officials have spent almost $1 million on litigation challenging the tribe's sovereignty. The village has so far lost two court battles since it breached its service agreement with the Oneida in 2007.
But in 2015, talks between Green Bay and the Oneida Nation stalled after city officials argued they would lose millions of dollars in tax base if the tribe recovered land and placed it in trust. Hobart leaders even stepped in and urged the city to "fight land going into trust by tooth and nail and fang and kicking and screaming and any other manner."
The City Council voted in 2016 to back out of the previous agreement — a move one Oneida official at the time called "very disheartening."
Council member Barb Dorff, who was elected that year, said Green Bay has since provided those same services for free while racking up legal fees in land disputes. Under the old agreement, the city would have received $1.5 million from the tribe over that five-year period.
Dorff also said the Oneida have a right to that land and believes the city shouldn't be attempting to block their efforts to purchase it — something the current proposal would bring to an end.
"I think it's sending a message of cooperation, a message of respect," she said. "We respect that this was your land. We respect that you have a right to take this land into trust when you're given the opportunity."
Oneida Nation Chairman Tehassi Hill makes a statement about the tribe's appeals court victory on July 30, 2020. The Nation disputed the Village of Hobart's requirement for a festival permit, saying it was a challenge to tribal sovereignty.
Under the draft agreement, the tribe would make annual payments to the city through 2035 for road maintenance, storm and sewer work and other services. The schedule allows the Oneida Nation to pay less this year as they recover from the coronavirus pandemic and gaming revenue losses.
"It's going to take two to three years to come out of this," said Oneida Chairman Tehassi Hill. "That was one reason for the structure of the payments."
The tribe would also make a one-time payment of $150,000 to Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary as a "gesture of good faith," Hill said. A separate document outlines the jurisdictions for Green Bay and Oneida police and provides guidelines for the agencies to work together.
Unlike the previous agreement, the proposal further recognizes the tribe's sovereignty by stipulating that its zoning and building codes apply to people and businesses on tribal land. It also details ways the governments can work together, such as sharing resources, supporting grant applications and coordinating environmental initiatives.
"Really strengthening that connection that we have between the nation and the city will be one of the most beneficial things to come of this," Genrich said.
Several people currently on the City Council didn't hold office in 2016, so it's unclear how the proposed agreement will go over when the council takes it up for the first time on Wednesday, when much of the discussion will occur behind closed doors. Council member Jesse Brunette, whose district overlaps with the Oneida reservation, said in a statement that the city and tribe have had a "positive and forward-facing relationship" the past three years.
Brunette said he views the current drafts as a starting point for further negotiation and not the final product. He also expressed concern about debating the agreement in closed session, saying it prevents the public from understanding the views of their elected leaders.
"The City Council now has a duty to carefully study and research the proposed agreements to recommend necessary changes that respect the Oneida Nation's sovereign status but also protects city taxpayers in both the short and long term," Brunette said.