The 57-43 vote was met by applause from most of those in the sparse crowd gathered for the unadvertised special-called meeting Thursday, July 27.
“They voted right!” said Lori Taylor, a Big Cove candidate for Tribal Council in September’s elections. “Yay! We won. The people won.”
Taylor had been among the roomful of tribal members who chanted “Special election! Special election!” as Tribal Council attempted to swear in then-Vice Chief Richard Sneed as principal chief following Patrick Lambert’s impeachment and removal from the office this May. The commotion in the councilhouse that day had been so great that Sneed’s swearing-in had to be relocated to the less riotous Cherokee Justice Center.
Afterward, attention shifted to how councilmembers would fill the vacant vice chief’s seat. Would they appoint one of their own to the office, or would they hold a special election in which any tribal member could run?
Tribal Council discussed the issue during a June 15 meeting, the first 50 minutes of which took place in closed session and involved legal advice from the tribal attorney general’s office as well as from Tribal Council’s own legislative counsel. At that time, the consensus was that letting the people vote would be the best solution to the vacancy, but that there was still some uncertainty as to whether a special election would be legal in this circumstance. Tribal Council agreed to do some further research and then make a decision during the July Tribal Council meeting.
However, the July meeting came and went with no decision.
With the deadline looming to either act or leave the tribe unable to pay debts and paychecks, Tribal Council met again July 27. Payments from the tribe require the signatures of two people — the principal chief and the vice chief. However, with no vice chief in place it’s not possible to comply with that requirement. After Lambert’s removal from office, Tribal Council had passed emergency legislation allowing Sneed’s to be the sole signature on such documents, but the resolution was set to expire at 5 p.m. Friday, July 28.
The July 27 meeting opened at 1:30 p.m., with Chairman Bill Taylor announcing it would begin with a closed-session meeting and immediately clearing the chambers. Tribal Council talked for an hour and a half before coming back into open session at 3:05 p.m.
It took less than five minutes to open the session with a roll call and prayer, bring up the vice chief topic and complete a vote — all discussion took place in closed session.
“Many want to have a special election, and some want to appoint, so at this time I’m going to open up the floor for any moves for a special election. Anyone want to make that move?” said Chairman Bill Taylor, of Wolfetown.
Councilmember Bo Crowe, of Wolfetown, made the move immediately with a second from Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown. Councilmember Alan “B” Ensley, of Yellowhill, called the question.
The special election was approved 57-43, with Councilmembers Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove; Richard French, of Big Cove; Albert Rose, of Birdtown, Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird, Ensley, Saunooke and Crowe voting in favor. Opposed were Vice Chairman Brandon Jones, of Snowbird; Councilmember Marie Junaluska, of Painttown; Councilmember Anita Lossiah, of Yellowhill, Councilmember Travis Smith, of Birdtown; and Taylor.
Following that vote, Council unanimously approved a resolution to extend Sneed’s authority to sign for disbursal of funds through 5 p.m. Dec. 31 or when a new vice chief is sworn in — whichever happens first.
Tribal Council plans to pass a resolution detailing the specifics of the special election, including the date and filing period, during its Aug. 3 meeting.
Reactions to the decision
“I think that our people should be relieved that we should have the right to vote for the vice chief,” said Terri Henry, a former Council Chairwoman and Tribal Council candidate from Painttown, after the vote. “We as Cherokee people have a history of voting for our elected officials and Section 2 of the Charter says that those positions will be elected by the enrolled members of the EBCI. I’m an enrolled member like 16,000 other people, and I’m elated that we get to have the vote.”
“I’ve been out in the community and everybody I spoke to, they want a special election, so I’m glad Council voted for the people for once,” added Ashley Sessions, of Birdtown, another Tribal Council candidate who attended the meeting.
However, not everybody felt the same way. Some councilmembers said they believed the decision to hold a special election ran contrary to tribal law.
“We ‘Council’ have been given two legal opinions that stated there were no provisions for a special election, and some of council still voted against the law,” Smith told The Smoky Mountain News via text. “I understand listening to our people and getting there (sic) input, but it’s also our job to educate our people when there are clear laws in our Charter and Governing Documents that dictate what we can and can’t do!”
“After meeting with our legal counsel and the Attorney General I felt like it would be in direct conflict with the Charter and Governing Document to go the route of a special election in this circumstance,” Jones added in an email. “I will always fully support an election process for the People anytime the law allows for it, but in 2012 the laws changed to what they are now and the way things were done in the past are not allowable today.”
McCoy, meanwhile, said that she was “thrilled” at the decision and believes that calling a special election was completely appropriate under the circumstances.
“I’m very proud of the councilmembers who supported doing this for their people,” she said. “I thank them and I hope that our people will remember their good deeds when they go vote in September.”
Looking at the law
The last time a special election was held was in 1997, when then-Vice Chief Gerard Parker resigned under investigation. A special election was called to fill the vacancy, and Bill Ledford won the seat. He later ran for re-election to a full term and won.
The law governing what happens when the vice chief’s seat is vacated has changed since then. A 2008 version of the ordinance reads, “If the position of the Vice Chief is vacated, the council may elect a successor who shall serve until his successor is elected.” The current version is a bit different: “If the position of Vice Chief is vacated, the Council may elect a successor from Tribal Council Representatives, who shall serve until his or her successor is elected the balance of the elected term of office.”
The main difference is that the second version specifies that an appointment of Tribal Council would come from among its own members. However, both versions use the word “may” to describe Tribal Council’s ability to elect a successor. That’s different than the word “shall” used in an earlier section stating that the vice chief “shall” become principal chief if the principal chief’s office is vacated. Typically, “shall” means that an action is mandatory while “may” implies a degree of flexibility.
A 2012 amendment to the same ordinance clarified that the person filling the vacant position would serve the balance of the remaining term until the next regular election.
So, the ordinance does not say that the seat must be filled by a Tribal Council appointment — but it also doesn’t specify what the other options are for filling it or expressly state that a special election is allowed in that circumstance.