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INFORMAL VOTE SHOWS UTES WANT TO SPEND SETTLEMENT

SHARE INFORMAL VOTE SHOWS UTES WANT TO SPEND SETTLEMENT

An informal advisory vote by the Ute Indian Tribe shows an overwhelming majority want to begin using the $198.5 million in water-settlement funds being paid to the tribe by the federal government.

Last month 138 tribal members voted in favor of using the money, while 46 voted against it. Only 20 percent of the tribe's eligible voters cast ballots, said Larry Cesspooch, tribal public relations director.The non-binding votes indicate the will of the tribe when it comes to spending hundreds of millions of dollars that have filtered into tribal accounts since late 1993.

Under terms in Title V of the Central Utah Project Completion Act as part of the Ute Indian Settlement, the money comes in lieu of promises of future water development the federal government made to the tribe in the 1965 deferral agreement. The agreement took water from the reservation to the Wasatch Front as part of the Bonneville Unit of CUP. At the same time the tribe agreed to defer its own plans for water development.

With the exception of money coming to the tribe for water sales to the Wasatch Front, which is being withdrawn for government operations, millions of dollars sitting in other accounts remain untouched. The money is earmarked for the tribe's general budget as well as for specific projects such as water-related development, farming operations and a tribal development fund for economic devel-opment projects.

The federal government requires that spending plans and projects be formulated and approved before the money can be released.

Tribal Business Committee member Raymond Murray believes the government cheated the tribe out of about $300 million in the settlement. Earlier, he said he wouldn't spend a penny of the money until he "heard from the people." Murray favored renegotiating the agreement, but tribal attorneys and others say any new deals with Congress over water repayments are highly unlikely.

Murray maintains the low voter turnout did not adequately reflect the wishes of the majority of tribal members.

"I don't consider that as an approval. That's not enough people. If they want to spend it, then put out a big campaign and then let the people vote," he stated.

Murray felt tribal members weren't given enough advance notice because the vote was announced on a Tuesday and held the following day.

Tod Smith, an attorney for Whiteing and Thompson, general counsel for the Ute Tribe, says regardless of whether the tribe ever agrees to spend the money, it's in the tribe's account.

"The question is, Congress has given us this money, do you want us to use it?" Smith said.

Tribal leaders have asked for potential economic development plans and priorities.