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Cherokee budget proposes another pay raise for council

cherokeeWith elections a week away and threat of a lawsuit still hanging, the Cherokee Tribal Council is considering a proposed budget that includes a pay raise of nearly 5 percent for its members.

The budget, prepared by outgoing Principal Chief Michell Hicks, suggests raising the pay for councilmembers from $80,800 to $84,511, with the proposed salary for the chair and vice chair reaching $90,547 and $87,529, respectively. The raises would go into effect when the new council is seated.

“I’m opposed to any kind of increase, and I know there’s several others that are opposed to it,” said Councilmember Brandon Jones, who represents Snowbird. 

The Tribal Council came under fire just last year for a similar decision, when the council adopted a budget that included raises of $10,600 to $11,400 and up to $33,000 in back pay, effective immediately. All councilmembers voted in favor of the budget, save Bo Crowe, who voted against it, and Brandon Jones and Teresa McCoy, who were not present and later expressed their disapproval. Albert Rose, who initially voted for the budget in its entirety, later came out against the raises.

Opponents of the raises pointed out that the tribe’s Charter and Governing Document states that any raises given councilmembers can’t take effect until after an election is conducted and a new council seated. Meanwhile, supporters said that the raises weren’t raises at all — instead, they were “pay adjustments,” aimed at bringing the tribe into compliance with a 2004 ordinance that said pay raises for councilmembers should be the same as those given tribal employees. The back pay, then, was simply a check for the amount council members should have received all along had they been given incremental raises in keeping with the ordinance.

Many tribal members did not buy that explanation, forming a group calling itself EBCI for Justice and Accountability. The group retained a lawyer and had a demand letter sent to each of the 12 Tribal Council members and Interim Attorney General Hannah Smith, claiming they would file suit in Cherokee Tribal Court if council did not rescind the raises and return the money. No suit has yet been filed, but the group is still planning to do so, the group’s attorney Meghann Burke told The Smoky Mountain News last month.  

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According to Jones, the argument presented for this year’s increase is that, if the tribe is now going to abide by the 2004 resolution saying that Tribal Council should receive raises in keeping with those given tribal employees, its members should continue to receive incremental raises. 

However, the proposed raises for council amount to a 4.8 percent hike for the chair and vice chair and 4.9 percent for other council members. Meanwhile, according to Council Member Bo Crowe, of Wolfetown, the proposed cost of living increase for tribal employees is 3 percent. 

“I don’t agree with it, and I won’t support the budget for that reason,” Wolfe said. 

Council had a lengthy discussion about the proposed budget last week, talking behind closed doors for more than an hour Aug. 18. They were set to make a final decision on the budget Monday (Aug. 24), but council adjourned soon after it convened. They will not likely revisit the issue this week, as joint events with visiting representatives of the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah of Cherokees are planned throughout the week. 

According to Jones, several of the councilmembers are opposed to the raise, while some support it. With all 12 council seats up for election Sept. 3, it’s getting down to the wire. The existing council could vote to pass the budget as presented, pass an amended version or just pass a resolution to continue funding tribal operations but defer creation of a new budget until after the new council is seated at the beginning of October. 

However, Jones is hopeful of preventing the pay raises from going through. 

“I think we’ve got enough support this year to hold the entire process until we can find a solution,” Jones said. 

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