A South Dakota tribal chairman who ordered surprise drug tests on more than 100 administrative employees last month was reinstated Friday evening after a marathon council hearing.
Bruce Renville, chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation, defended his decision to order drug tests as a response to an escalating methamphetamine crisis on the reservation — a move critics called an abuse of power and an embarrassment to the tribe's workforce.
The seven-member council, which suspended Renville with pay Sept. 4, gathered Friday morning for what led to more than six hours of discussion that resulted in Renville's immediate reinstatement. The council's final vote was not disclosed.
"[Renville's] action to try to reduce drugs in the community should not have been an impeachable offense under any circumstance," said his lawyer, former South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, who added how impressed he was with the thoughtful dialogue throughout the day.
"This could have been a situation where the tribe left more divided than ever," said Johnson, whose practice focuses on Indian law, "but instead, in many ways they're more unified than ever."
Renville, 71, called the hearing a "successful step in the right direction" for addressing the drug epidemic that has long concerned tribal elders.
Last year, more than a dozen methamphetamine-addicted babies were born on the Lake Traverse Reservation and drug paraphernalia was found in an administrative building bathroom. On Aug. 17, he ordered drug tests for everyone who works in that building. A "small number" of employees failed those tests, he said.
Tribal bylaws allow random drug screenings and mandate annual drug tests during employees' yearly evaluations. Renville said years had passed without any annual drug screenings.
In Renville's absence a few weeks later, the council voted to suspend him and his staff, throw out the drug test results and call for an impeachment vote.
In a letter to Renville after the vote, tribal secretary Crystal Owen said the across-the-board drug tests did not meet any of the tribe's drug-testing criteria.
Renville, who was elected chairman last November after a 32-year civil service career with the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., and with the Indian Health Service in Aberdeen, S.D., said he'd like to begin administering annual drug tests — a recommendation he's heard from other tribe members.
"When we adjourned our meeting we were on the same page," he said.