Citizen Potawatomi Nation And City Of Shawnee End Legal Battle, Strive To Attract New Jobs
The fight between the city of Shawnee and the Citizen Potawatomi Nation lasted for 60 years when leaders decided to call a truce this week.
Now, they hope to work together on a venture known as "Shawnee Aligned." It's something both governments hope will bring economic development and better city services to the area’s residents.
“Developing a strong partnership with the City of Shawnee has long been a hope and a goal for us,” said Citizen Potawatomi Nation Chief John "Rocky" Barrett. “As the largest employer in the region and a key economic partner, we understand that our greatest success comes when we cooperate. Shawnee Aligned is a huge step forward for the nation, the city and all of our neighbors.”
The whole thing started in 1961, when it was popular for cities to annex greater areas of land in order to get a bigger sales tax base to fund city services, but some of the land the city of Shawnee annexed along the North Canadian River was land in trust that belonged to the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
At the time it was annexed, there wasn’t much there. It was a bet on the future. And the Tribe didn’t have any financial or legal resources to fight the city.
But as the fortunes changed for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and they gained more economic resources, they countersued the City of Shawnee saying they weren’t given proper notice of the city’s intent to annex the land in 1961. They also contended that because the Tribe purchased the land in 1867 and put it in trust as a sovereign nation, the city didn’t have any legal right to annex it in the first place.
The issue languished in court from when the countersuit was filed in 1991 until 2014. By then, the area was booming. Restaurants, entertainment venues and a popular grocery story had popped up around the Firelake Casino.
Shawnee City Manager Ed McDougal told The Journal Record that the city legally annexed the land, and Citizen Potawatomi Nation owed millions of dollars in sales taxes from Firelake Foods, the popular grocery store.
And then a battle ensued in the media.
In an interview with KWTV in Oklahoma City, Barrett said, "We're simply not in the City of Shawnee, we're not a part of their tax base and never have been."
The legal back and forth continued until Monday.
On Monday, the Shawnee City Council voted to de-annex the land. Then, on Tuesday, Citizen Potawatomi Nation formally dismissed the case against Shawnee in Pottawatomie County District Court.
“For many years, the conflict between the City of Shawnee and the Citizen Potawatomi Nation has prevented us from leveraging our joint potential,” said Shawnee Mayor Ed Bolt. “Shawnee Aligned represents a new era for our community – setting aside differences to collaborate on initiatives and projects that benefit the community, making Shawnee more attractive for economic investment and positioning us for growth.”
Barrett said new leadership led to the decision to return the land and the recognition of the Tribe’s economic contribution to the county. Citizen Potawatomi Nation is one of the largest employers in the county, with around 2,400 employees.
"Rising tide lifts all boats," said Barrett. "What we're doing is good for the city."
Bolt said the decision to de-annex the land was simple-they didn't want to spend any more time in court paying legal fees.
"That's not the way I was raised to deal with my neighbors," said Bolt, who has been in office for a little over three years. "It's just so much better for the whole community if we can figure out a way to work together."
Shawnee Aligned is a framework that will allow cooperative development between the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and the city to happen. In many other Oklahoma communities including Tulsa, Ada and Tahlequah, the tribal government and the city government work together on joint public infrastructure projects and economic development.
Already, the Tribe is trying to attract businesses to its Iron Horse Industrial Park, which would create more jobs in the area.
As far as the technical aspects of the de-annexation, residents living in the area that was detached from the city won't feel the change. The tribal nation and the city have inter-agency agreements for policing and fire. Additionally, Citizen Potawatomi will take over the maintenance of the water and sewer system in that area and connect it to the $5 million system they built in that area.
As a sign of the resolution and new collaboration, Barrett presented Bolt with a blanket. It's a custom among Indigenous people that signals respect and gratitude for achievements and is a high honor.
"In our tradition, it's a big deal," said Barrett.