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Wednesday, 12 September 2012 00:00

Tribal council delves into ABC salary dispute

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Some Cherokee leaders are questioning if compensation for members of its various commissions should face the chopping block next fiscal year — in particular the $25,000 made by each of the five members the tribal Alcohol and Beverage Control Commission.

The discussion was prompted by criticism of the tribal ABC Commission by an enrolled member, who called for the ousting of the current ABC members.

Although the call to dismiss ABC members was rejected by Cherokee tribal council last week, some council members began to question what exactly the ABC Commission does and is it worth the $25,000 the commission members receive.

“We should be asking these questions,” said council member Bo Taylor. “As a relatively new council member, I want to know. I want to know what their duties are.”

Taylor said he personally was shocked by how much the ABC Commission received and thought that tribal leaders should evaluate all its paid commissions.

“I think we do need to re-evaluate, ‘Are they getting over compensated?” Taylor said. “I do think we need to take some time to look at these boards.”

Tribal council members asked Collette Coggins, chair of the ABC Commission, specific questions about the commission’s operations, duties carried out by its employees versus its board members and how often it meets.

A couple of tribal council members admitted that they did not know exactly what the commission’s responsibilities are.

A recent story in The Smoky Mountain News citing the salaries of Cherokee’s ABC Commission apparently raised eyebrows among some enrolled members, according to Missy Crowe, who addressed tribal council on the topic last week.

“A lot of my friends and folks out there were just kind of taken back,” said Crowe, who introduced the ordinance asking to replace the current ABC Commission members.

Crowe said that the tribe should focus more of its money on its schools, hospitals and other services rather than commission salaries, the casino and now an adventure park.

“We should have a premier hospital just like that casino. We should have a premier school,” Crowe said. “A lot of people are sitting there talking about cutting the fat, and this (ABC commission salaries) is some of the fat they are talking about.”

The tribe’s earnings from the alcohol sales cover compensation for ABC commission members. The casino is the only place on the reservation where alcohol is sold; the rest of Cherokee is dry.

One council member pointed out that the tribe reviewed the commission’s duties and compensation about two years ago. During that time, however, the tribal ABC commission was still in the process of setting up the tribe’s alcohol operations, which required a significant amount of legal and political footwork to establish. Given its sovereign nation status, the tribe got special permission from the state to operate as its own wholesaler, allowing it to keep a greater share of the profits and taxes off liquor sales compared to other ABC operations in the state.

When the report was presented to the board a couple of years ago, there were questions then about the ABC commission’s salaries and responsibilities, recalled Adam Wachacha, a tribal council member.

Wachacha suggested that the council wait until the commission members’ terms expire and revisit the situation then.

Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band, pointed out that in October tribal leaders will review the operations of its various commissions and departments during preparation of its annual report. Hicks said he thought the concerns were the result of a personal grudge.

“I am not sure what the basis is, but it sounds frivolous to me,” Hicks said, recommending that the council vote down Crowe’s proposal.

Crowe called for dismissing the current ABC Commission members because she claimed that they could not answer important questions posed to them by enrolled members during discussions leading up to the April vote on reservation-wide alcohol sales. The referendum to allow reservation-wide alcohol failed by a more than 60 percent majority — meaning alcohol sales aren’t allowed on the reservation except on the casino property.

“A lot of the people came and said that they just did not feel confident in the board, in their presentation when they came into the communities,” Crowe said, adding that she is not the only person with concerns.

Coggins defended the board’s ability to answer enrolled members’ questions.

“I feel like we answered all the questions they asked,” Coggins said.

One of those questions, for example, was what would count as a grocery store for the purpose of selling alcohol. Had the vote passed, grocery stores would have been permitted to sell alcohol, but whether a store could have put up single shelf of bread and crackers and qualify as a grocery in order to sell alcohol was unclear. It was unanswerable leading up to the vote, Coggins said, because it was something the tribal council had yet to define.

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