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Elected police chief question under review in Cherokee

fr cherokeepoliceA bid to make the Cherokee police chief’s position an elected one isn’t dead, but Tribal Council has voted to complete a study examining the pros and cons of such a move before making a choice. Following a lengthy discussion at their July meeting and a two-and-a-half-hour work session later that month, the council voted to embark on a feasibility study examining the possible effects of the idea and needs in the police department.

“It’s been a great discussion,” Councilmember Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird, said at the work session, thanking Birdtown council candidate Travis Smith for submitting the legislation. 

Smith had originally brought forward the idea of electing the police chief — currently, he’s hired as a tribal employee reporting to the principal chief — in May, arguing that a perceived lack of responsiveness in the department boils down to a “management issue.”

“We’re trying to empower our people to have a voice in what goes on,” he told council at their July meeting. 

Police Chief Ben Reed wasn’t present at that meeting, but when council scheduled a July 30 work session to discuss the issue, Reed took the podium for a half hour explanation of his point of view.  

“We’ve stretched as far as we can stretch,” he said. “We’re done. We can’t go no further. We have to add manpower to our department.”

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Reed, who has held his position since 2006, recalls that the department’s structure was “all messed up” when he took the reins, and he spent nearly two years getting everything straight. Meanwhile, Principal Chief Michell Hicks “quickly identified” that the police department’s needs were too great to operate on a standard budget, Reed said. Hicks changed the budget to make the police department’s share a percentage of the total revenue that would grow with time, rather than a static dollar amount. 

“That was a great thing until the recession hit in 2009 and no new positions came in for a couple of years,” Reed said. 

“I would welcome any efficiency study on our program,” Reed said at a different point in the meeting. “I would welcome it because it’s going to tell you exactly what we’ve been telling you for years. We need more people.” 

Council Chair Terri Henry took issue with the “telling you for years” part of that statement. 

“If you’re fighting for it, I don’t know if you’re fighting for it in this council chamber,” she said.

“If it’s not there, it’s not there,” Reed replied. “We know how much is in the overall budget and we all try to get our allocations and argue for what we need.”

But communication is part of the issue, Councilmember Perry Shell said, asking Reed to “answer when I call you.”

When he’s calling, it’s not to ask for some political favor or paint anyone into a corner, Shell said. Rather, it’s to pass along messages from people who feel they aren’t being heard. 

“They (Cherokee residents) called and they called and they called and they got no solution to their problem, so they start calling us, and that when I start calling you,” Shell said. 

Communication goes two ways. Reed said he wishes someone had told him that the concept of electing the police chief position was being discussed at the July council meeting. No one did until a half hour after the meeting began, he said. 

“No one talked to me about it, and I thought, That’s my position they’re talking about,” he said. 

No decision’s been made about the position yet. Following the two lengthy July discussions, councilmembers voted at their August meeting to get a study on the feasibility of electing a police chief done, with a deadline of Jan. 31, 2016. Before then, an election in which all 12 council seats are up for grabs will take place.

The resolution passed with only Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown, opposed. 

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