With an expanding tribal population and area, newly elected Tonto Apache tribal chair Ivan Smith is focused on increasing the tribe’s quality of life and supply of affordable housing while staying out of casino affairs.
Smith won out over his niece, Louise Lopez, in a 37-32 vote Saturday, Nov. 8.
“I am excited that I won,” Smith said. “I now have to get my feet back in the water.”
Smith was sworn in Thursday, Nov. 13 as the new chair, his second time occupying the seat. From 2004 to 2008 Smith served as tribal chair; years earlier he served as vice chair and as councilmember “on and off through the years,” he said.
“This is my second time as chairman, the first time was a learning experience,” Smith said. “I made some mistakes and learned from them.”
During his first term, Smith helped negotiate a 273-acre land swap with the U.S. Forest Service.
The tribe exchanged 439 acres of land in the Tonto, Coconino, Prescott and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests in return for 273 acres of ancestral land next to the 85-acre reservation near Payson. The tribe plans to use the land to build new affordable housing for tribal members who have had to seek housing off the reservation.
Smith said new housing is crucial to the expanding tribe.
“We are exploding beyond our boundaries,” Smith said. “There is no space left here on the reservation.”
The tribe, established in 1972, has a population of 134. The membership is increasing rapidly, with most of the tribe under 40 years old.
Smith himself has five children, all actively involved in tribal affairs. Nate is a court administrator, Cabrena does IT at the tribe, George is building a fence around the reservation, Clyde is a maintenance manager and Sabrina is a tribal administrator.
Smith takes over for his sister, Jeri Johnson DeCola, who resigned Sept. 30 after three members of the five-member tribal council requested DeCola step down.
“I feel like I could do this job,” Smith said. “I didn’t make any promises while campaigning, so I am going to try to do a good job and uphold their trust in me.”
Smith plans to focus the council on tribal business and stay out of the casino’s day-to-day operations.
“I don’t think the council should be involved in the casino; they have people over there managing it,” Smith said. “I don’t want to interfere.”
Smith admits the casino is feeling the downswing in the economy similar to other businesses.
“There are hard times everywhere, so we are feeling the pinch,” Smith said. “We are not doing a whole lot of layoffs, but I can’t really speak about it because I have not been on council.”
Tribal Controller Jerry Holland said the casino eliminated several positions no longer needed.
“There are rumors flying around, but the tribe is in excellent financial position,” Holland said. “We are watching costs and trying to cut expenses, but there have been no major layoffs.”