Cherokee outlaws backpay with Council pay hikes

During its last days before swearing in newly elected members, the Cherokee Tribal Council unanimously passed an ordinance amendment that will prevent future tribal councils from getting cumulative backpay with pay raises.

“When we came into office I was adamant about us not having a pay increase at all,” said outgoing Councilmember Anita Lossiah, of Yellowhill, who had originally introduced the legislation during the beginning of her term in 2015. It wound up tabled and didn’t come to a vote until Council’s cleanup session Sept. 28 in advance of the new term. “Consequently in each of the three budgets we have not approved a pay increase. This was basically additionally saying that if there was something that had been passed in the past, it shall not take a cumulative effect.”

The legislation was a response to a controversy that permeated tribal politics from late 2014 through the general elections in 2015. While passing the 2014 budget, the Tribal Council sitting at the time had quietly included a $10,000 pay raise for themselves, complete with backpay for the years when they supposedly should have already been earning the higher salary. Backpay checks were prorated based on how long each member had been in office, with some payouts as high as $33,000. Between higher salaries for that first year and all the backpay, the legislation cost the tribe about $1 million. Despite a tribal law saying that pay raises for councilmembers can’t take effect until after the next election, the raises were effective immediately.

The pay raises elicited widespread anger among tribal members and prompted a coalition of them to file a lawsuit in tribal court. However, the suit was eventually dismissed due to lack of standing.

The 2015-2017 Tribal Council included four councilmembers who were also in office during the previous term and supported the pay raises. However, last week all of them voted for Lossiah’s legislation that would explicitly prohibit a repeat of the action.

Currently, Tribal Council representatives make $80,600 per year, with the chairman and vice chairman making slightly more. However, said outgoing Councilmember Travis Smith, of Birdtown, that’s not as much money as it might seem.

“This job’s tough. Everybody thinks $80,000 is a lot of money. It’s not when that’s all you get,” he said. “You don’t get any retirement. You don’t get Social Security. You don’t get no 401K.”

“You’re exactly right, and people don’t understand,” agreed Councilmember Tommye Saunooke. “How long have I been here — 18 years — and I’ve never paid a thing into Social Security, and that’s really going to hurt down the road.”

Go to top