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Conflict no deterrent for new Hobart administrator

Willman aims to bring Oneida tribe, village to table

By Malavika Jagannathan, Green Bay Press Gazette 3/10/08

HOBART Elaine Willman isn't intimidated by the prospect of conflict.

How much will play a role in her new job as village administrator to which the West Coast native was appointed this week remains to be seen. But she hopes it will not interfere in her vision in Hobart's growth and its relationship with the Oneida Tribe of Indians.

"It's not an easy process," said Willman, referring to easing the often-turbulent relationship between the village and the tribe. In face, the relationship initially attracted her to take a newly created position as community development director and tribal affairs director in January. "Both governments need to exist coexist," she said.

Willman was hired in January for that position, then promoted on an interim basis when longtime village Administrator Joe Helfenberger resigned last month to take a new position in Iowa. She's a former City Council member, a development director and assistant city manager who shifted gears in 2000 to focus on what she sees as the failings of federal Indian policy.

On Tuesday night, the board voted to appoint Willman to the position permanently, increasing her current salary of $65,000 with benefits by $10,000. It's a decision that board member Debbie Schumacher says had always been on the table, despite the fact that Willman has only been with the village for two months.

"She has all of the skills she was obviously performing at the level we needed," Schumacher said. "I think the decision just evolved after Joe (Helfenberger) was leaving."

No other candidates were interviewed for the position in part because board members "knew that's eventually where we were heading" and thought it would be more effective to make the position permanent sooner than later, Schumacher said.

The decision caught Willman by surprise. She still hasn't moved into the administrator's office which has been empty since Helfenberger left and says she'll probably continue in her smaller workspace.

Instead of replacing her, the board has given the go-ahead to hire an assistant, someone who will focus on administration and development. Because of Willman's experience with Indian affairs, she'll continue working on that part of her current job as administrator, Schumacher said,

Willman first came to Hobart last fall, giving a speech that touched on federal Indian policy as it related to Hobart and neighboring Oneida Tribe of Indians.

She is Cherokee, but not an enrolled member, and she makes a clear delineation between what she characterizes as her "childhood affection for my own culture" and how she views the reach of tribal governments.

"Ordinarily it is not our business (what tribal governments do)," Willman said. "But it becomes our business if it affects our land or our lives."

Since about 2000, when she became involved in a citizens group that challenged the Yakima Nation's proposal to tax a utility that eventually went to the Washington state Supreme Court, Willman has been involved in various organizations that oppose tribal sovereignty. Although she resigned her chairmanship of the Citizens for Equal Rights group, she remains on their board of directors and doesn't see it as a deterrent to resolving issues between the tribe and the village.

"That's one reason I made this very substantial life change," Willman said of her cross-country move. "With an intelligent tribal government and a willing board, time will come soon when these two governments have to come to the table."

Still there exists a rancorous history of litigation and breakdown of government-to-government talks, including the latest development a resolution from the tribe's business committee that essentially ends negotiations for a service agreement.

Lance Kelley, a resident who teaches a course on race and ethnicity at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, said he has some concerns that Willman's appointment may not facilitate cooperation between the tribe and the village.

"(The village is) sending a very strong message towards the tribe and definitely standing their ground," said Kelley. "It is a very difficult situation there's no right answer."

But tribal affairs will be a small portion of her daily work. Hobart is a growing community with long-term water needs and a dearth of commercial development, which are priorities, Willman said.

"We need thoughtful growth," Willman said. "I don't just want to see another shopping center go up."

She's looking at areas near Hobart's border with Lawrence around Packerland Drive and Brown County EE, where a new school and residential development are in need of nearby amenities such as a grocery store or bank.

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