During the referendum election — a date has not been specified — voters will be asked one question: whether a tribally owned package store and ABC store should be opened on tribal land.
The discussion began in October 2017, just weeks after a slew of new councilmembers — including Councilmember Lisa Taylor, of Painttown — was sworn in. Taylor introduced a resolution asking for a referendum vote on expanding alcohol sales outside of casino property. If voters said no, the thought was, then a handful of controversial off-casino permits granted under what’s known as the Blue Ridge Law would go away.
The Blue Ridge Law is a state law that says tourism establishments — including hotels and restaurants — located within 1.5 miles of a Blue Ridge Parkway on-ramp can receive alcohol permits without a local referendum vote. The 2011 Tribal Council adopted the portion of state law that includes the Blue Ridge Law into tribal code, and in 2015 the state made the changes necessary on its end for the two laws to fit together.
However, then-Principal Chief Patrick Lambert would not allow Blue Ridge Law permits to be granted, saying that a 2012 referendum vote in which tribal members overwhelmingly said they did not want alcohol sold off casino property should take precedence. Lambert was removed as chief by impeachment in May 2017, and when Principal Chief Richard Sneed took office the permits were allowed to move forward. Three restaurants have received Blue Ridge Law permits at the direction of Tribal Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission Chairman Pepper Taylor.
A request to lobby
Lisa Taylor’s initial legislation was aimed at allowing the people to vote to do away with the Blue Ridge Law permits, but the various attorneys advising Tribal Council quickly said that the referendum vote would have no impact on Blue Ridge Law permits, which are exempt from referendum approval.
So, Taylor introduced a new resolution, this one requesting that Tribal Council instruct its lobbyists to “use all means possible” to get the state legislature to remove “this offending section (the Blue Ridge Law) and any other sections in the General Statutes that pertain to authorization of any particular permits or licenses to be issued upon our lands that do not strictly adhere to our local referendums.”
“The alcohol board law says that they’ll keep the best interests of the people, and I don’t think what they done by issuing permits was in the best interest of the people,” Taylor said during the Feb. 1 council meeting. “The best interest of the people is what they went and voted on, and that was at the casino only.”
In her resolution, Taylor contended that the state law implementing the Blue Ridge Law and other provisions for referendum-free alcohol permits on tribal land was “lobbied for by a few private individuals and the local TABCC Board without approval of the enrolled members of the Tribe.”
The resolution met a cool reception from Tribal Council, with Chairman Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird, and Vice Chairman David Wolfe, of Yellowhill, saying that they felt it was premature. Two items down on that month’s council agenda was a vote to finalize the wording for the alcohol referendum vote, and Wolfe and Wachacha said it made sense to wait on the outcome of the referendum before directing tribal lobbyists to seek changes on the state’s end.
“If the referendum does pass, it will put this whole thing in a backspin,” Wachacha said.
Bob Blankenship, a founding member of the TABCC who has since rotated off, told Tribal Council that Cherokee got “the best deal of any Indian tribe in this country” when North Carolina granted it the ability to form its own alcohol commission. However, compliance with state alcohol law was part of the deal, and that includes the Blue Ridge Law.
“I think it’s a mistake to mess with this,” he said. “We have worked for years to get it done.”
Collette Coggins, also a former TABCC member, agreed with Blankenship and took issue with Taylor’s assertion that the Blue Ridge Law was implemented as the result of any individual person’s “agenda.”
“It’s the whole tribe’s agenda,” she said.
Even restricted to casino property, alcohol sales are big business in Cherokee, with Sneed stating during a previous council meeting that sales at the casino bring the tribe $20 million annually.
What the tribe needs to do, Blankenship said, is to “move ahead and take full control of alcohol, including an ABC store,” because otherwise suppliers will just continue to set up shop right outside of the boundary, with alcohol flowing into Cherokee while the money stays outside.
“There are some questions that we need answered. He’s exactly right,” acknowledged Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown. “Catamount (Travel Center) moved right in just 300 yards from us, and what do we get? The problems and the beer cans. None of the revenue.”
Sneed said that allowing alcohol sales would also open the door to future economic diversity.
“Talk to anybody in commerce, and they will tell you that if we’re going to continue to diversify, we’re going to have to have alcohol sales in restaurants,” he said. “You may not like that. You don’t have to go there and spend your money.”
However, several tribal members attending the meeting were quick to voice their opposition to any increase in alcohol availability on the Qualla Boundary, especially in light of the 2012 referendum results. In that vote, 60 percent voted against creating an ABC store on tribal lands, 61 percent voted against the sale of alcohol in restaurants on tribal lands and 66 percent voted against the sale of beer and wine in grocery or convenience stores.
“The point is this: Yes, you did give the TABCC the power and authority to control alcohol — at the casino only. Not anywhere else,” said Mary Crowe, of Yellowhill.
“Every time the people have said no, but still we have this few, small group of people who somehow their opinion, their wants and their needs outweigh the voice of the whole people, and that’s just beyond me,” added Becky Walker, of Birdtown.
“Question: what is the personal agenda?” asked Councilmember Albert Rose, of Birdtown, bristling against Walker’s accusations. “You’re hammering us up here, and I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
The problem, Walker said, is that the original lobbying for the Blue Ridge Law was at the direction of a select few, and not at all a representation of the will of the people.
“Anyone who wants to go to Raleigh can go to Raleigh and lobby for anything they want,” Rose replied.
“Not on tribal dollars,” said Walker.
At that, a boo came from the audience, and the clock reached 5 p.m. Wachacha announced that, per tribal law stating that Tribal Council shall “normally” convene at 8:30 a.m. and recess at 5 p.m., the meeting would recess until 8:30 the next morning. Councilmember Bucky Brown, of Snowbird, requested that his constituent Onita Bush be allowed to speak first, as she’d driven an hour to get there and been waiting all day.
“You owe us this time Adam (Wachacha), you really do,” Bush said.
“And I’ll give it to you, tomorrow morning at 8:30,” Wachacha said.
The two went back and forth until Wachacha finally told the video technician to take council off the air and recessed the meeting.
When Tribal Council returned to its chambers the next morning, there was no further discussion on Taylor’s resolution to lobby for repeal of the Blue Ridge Law. Councilmember Jeremy Wilson, of Wolfetown, moved to kill the resolution and Rose seconded the motion. Taylor moved to pass, but her motion failed to receive a second.
Ultimately, nine of the 12 councilmembers voted to kill the resolution. Brown voted against the move to kill, Taylor abstained and Councilmember Tom Wahnetah, of Yellowhill, was absent.
ABC store referendum approved
That wasn’t all for the day’s alcohol-related discussions. Later on the agenda, council discussed another one of Taylor’s resolutions — the latest iteration of the referendum question. Taylor offered suggested language for the referendum: “To allow ABC permits to be issued to allow retail sales of alcoholic beverages on Tribal trust land at locations other than casino property,” with voting options “For” and “Against.”
However, that wording drew criticism.
“The question is too broad, because as it stands right now there’s no regulation on the front end,” Sneed said. “If you put this out there now and it passes, the next day anyone who has four walls and wants to apply for an ABC permit can do that.”
Instead, Sneed suggested, the question should ask for permission to open a tribal ABC store as a way to “ease into the business.” Tribal Council could then build regulations for more widespread alcohol sales in case a later referendum approved them.
Michael Gross, attorney for the TABCC, stepped in to say that the regulations Sneed spoke of were already in place. The tribe has already adopted state alcohol laws, which spell out rules for granting alcohol permits.
“If the referendum were to pass, in the language as it’s written you would not have to go back and try to decide what types of establishments qualify for what types of permits,” Gross said.
If the tribe had its own ABC store, Sneed said, it would keep all the revenue from that store — as opposed to the business tribal members currently give to off-boundary stores, none of whose revenues goes back to the tribe. Those funds could be earmarked for rehabilitation services, he said, most of which are needed because of pill and heroin addictions, not because of alcohol. Current annual costs for such services sit at $7 million.
“We can go get it if we want it,” TABCC member Bruce Toineeta said of alcohol. “That’s a given, but we could hold that profit right here, and we could dictate what happens to that money.”
In response to Sneed’s suggestion, Rose moved to alter Taylor’s proposed question. Instead of asking voters to approve retail alcohol sales off casino property in general, he said, the question should ask voters to approve opening a tribally owned ABC and package store. Taylor moved to retain her original question as a second question on the ballot but failed to receive a second. Tribal Council ultimately adopted Rose’s question instead.
Some tribal members in attendance were skeptical about the promises of new revenue, citing past assurances of doubled per capita payments if alcohol were approved for the casino. According to a 2009 story in The Smoky Mountain News, payments were expected to more than double from about $8,000 annually to about $17,000 annually by 2015. Payments have been rising, but more gradually — currently, per capita totals just north of $12,000 annually.
Others questioned how heavily the dollar signs should figure into this equation.
“Remember, is that money more valuable than your life, the tribe’s life, your grandchild’s life, future generations?” asked Lea Wolfe, of Painttown. “Is it more valuable? Not all money is good money, and you better remember that, because these actions have consequences.”
Some questioned whether tribal government would respect the outcome of the referendum, whatever it may be.
“What about we have this referendum and it don’t pass. Do you still have plans on doing it anyway?” asked Sheila Standingdeer, of Big Cove.
“The cart’s been sitting there a long time waiting on a horse, and the horse has been that the people let it happen,” Walker added. “The Blue Ridge Law was a wedge drove in from the side, so there’s a little space alcohol can be sold, and you all are going to leave it alone and let it happen. So the message I’m getting is people in Yellowhill can vote in a referendum and it won’t mean anything because alcohol will still be at Saunooke Village.”
Tribal member Ashley Sessions, of Birdtown, asked whether now was the best time to hold such an important vote. During the Feb. 1 session councilmembers had announced that an audit report delivered earlier that week had proven that the Tribal Council election held in September — in which Sessions was a candidate — had been tampered with. SMN requests for a copy of the audit have not yet been returned.
“I don’t think it is a good idea to put this out with that (election) board sitting right now because of the fact that they mentioned an election has already been tampered with,” Sessions said.
While those in the councilhouse held markedly different opinions on alcohol consumption, the need for revenue from its sale and many other topics, the vote wound up yielding a cohesive voice in support of the referendum question.
Ten councilmembers voted in favor of the question, with Wahnetah absent and Wachacha voting opposed.
“I have my own reasons,” Wachacha said by way of explanation.
The next step will be for council to confer with the EBCI Board of Elections to determine a date for the referendum and approve funds to conduct it.
Tribal Council approved a referendum question for a future vote that will read:
To allow ABC permits to be issued to allow retail sales of alcoholic beverages on Tribal trust land at a tribally owned package store and ABC store
[ ] FOR
[ ] AGAINST
The question passed 10-1, with Chairman Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird, opposed, and Councilmember Tom Wahnetah, of Yellowhill, absent.