Northern Arizona tribal chairman removed in recall

By Felicia Fonseca
Peach Springs, Arizona (AP) April 2011

The northern Arizona tribe that owns the Grand Canyon Skywalk is under interim leadership after its chairman was recalled in an election a week ago.

Hualapai tribal members voted to remove Wilfred Whatoname Sr. from office April 16. He had about a year remaining in his four-year term.

The tribe’s vice chairman, Richard Walema Sr., is serving as acting chairman and said through a spokesman that a notice of special election would be posted within 30 days.

Patricia Cesspooch said she pulled a petition more than a year ago to recall Whatoname over concern about how tribal funds were being appropriated. She gathered 314 signatures – more than she needed – but the recall election was delayed while Whatoname unsuccessfully challenged it in court.

Cesspooch said she was disappointed with the Tribal Council’s handling of a profit-sharing agreement that Whatoname approved, among other things.

The Tribal Council publicly censured Whatoname early last year, after he approved $585,000 in profit-sharing payments to employees of Grand Canyon Resort Corp. – the business arm of the tribe. The council said Whatoname harmed the financial well-being of the tribe and acted without the council’s approval.

Whatoname issued a public apology but said that he believed the employees, both Hualapai and non-Hualapai, work hard and earned the money.

“If I have done any harm to the financial well-being of the Hualapai Nation, I don’t believe that there is any evidence to prove that this has happened,” he wrote in a letter published in the tribal newsletter.

Efforts to reach Whatoname were unsuccessful. The Associated Press left email and phone messages with his family and friends, and a number listed for him went unanswered.

Cesspooch said she’s been accused of being disgruntled and unsupportive of the tribe’s business endeavors, but she said that’s not the case. She said she took up the plight of elders and other community members to hold elected officials accountable.

“To say they’re looking out for our well-being, that doesn’t show it,” she said. “I had to make a stand.”

Under the tribal constitution, elected officials who are recalled cannot seek office for four years.

Whatoname had listed nearly a dozen accomplishments in urging tribal members not to approve the recall. Those include obtaining $13.3 million in federal funds to pipe water to Grand Canyon West, reopening the adult and juvenile detention centers, resurfacing roads and securing cell phone towers.

Still on his to-do list was paving a section of rough road that leads to the Skywalk and submitting a grant to bring power to Grand Canyon West.

The tribe partnered with a Las Vegas developer to open the Grand Canyon Skywalk in 2007. The glass-bottomed bridge extends 70 feet from the canyon’s rim and rises 4,000 feet above the Colorado River.

The tribe said Whatoname’s recall has nothing to do with a dispute with the Skywalk developer over revenues and construction of a visitor center.