The employees failed the drug test, but on one South Dakota reservation, it’s their boss — the one who ordered the testing — who could lose his job.
Bruce Renville, chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation, will appear before his tribal council Friday morning to defend his decision to spring surprise drug tests on more than 100 administrative employees in August. Council members, who suspended Renville with pay earlier this month, have called a vote to remove him from office.
“It’s distressing that people I work with every day could turn on me like that,” said Renville, 71, 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 Indian Health Service in Aberdeen, S.D. “They got all upset because people tested positive — friends, relatives, family members. They got upset and they wanted somebody’s head. They wanted mine.”
To his critics, the mass drug tests were an abuse of power that embarrassed the tribe’s workforce. But to Renville, it seemed like the only reasonable response to an escalating drug crisis on the reservation.
Twenty methamphetamine-addicted babies were born on the Lake Traverse Reservation last year, Renville said. A meth pipe and drug paraphernalia turned up in a women’s restroom in a tribal administration building. On Aug. 17, Renville ordered drug tests for everyone who works in that building.
“You hear so many stories, about how serious the problem is,” he said. “We have a big drug problem in our community. It’s not one of those situations where you can ignore it and maybe it’ll go away.”
Tribal bylaws allow random drug screenings and mandate annual drug tests during employees’ yearly evaluations. Employees also can be tested before hiring, after on-the-job accidents and any other time there is a “reasonable suspicion” that he or she is using drugs. Renville said years had passed without any annual drug screenings.
On Sept. 4, while Renville was undergoing a minor surgical procedure away from the reservation, 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: They weren’t tied to annual reviews, and they weren’t administered to randomly selected individuals or targeted to employees who had raised their employer’s suspicions.
Her letter describes a grim scene of employees forced to wait in long lines for the restrooms, forbidden to leave the building, while police guarded the exits.
Employees who failed the drug tests “did so in full view of all those individuals in line,” Owen wrote. “While we can understand your need and desire to have a drug-free staff, such [a] goal cannot be accomplished by violating the rights of our employees and tribal members.”
Renville will be represented at the Friday removal hearing by Brendan Johnson, former U.S. attorney for South Dakota who is now a partner in the Minneapolis-based Robins Kaplan law firm. If Renville is removed from office, he might be the first tribal chairman in the nation to be ousted over an attempt to create a drug-free workplace.
Johnson, whose practice focuses on Indian law, said the drug tests Renville ordered did not violate Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate drug-testing guidelines and that none of his actions merit such a harsh punishment.
The seven members of the tribal council will meet at 10 a.m. It will require at least five yes votes to remove the chairman from office.
“I’m not thinking so much about myself, but the whole tribe and what we could potentially lose,” Renville said. “Starting with our credibility.”