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Hicks to take Gaming Commission top job when political term ends

fr hicksThe day after Chief-Elect Patrick Lambert takes his oath of office, Principal Chief Michell Hicks will take over Lambert’s old job as executive director of the Tribal Gaming Commission.

“Mr. Hicks brings a wealth of directly related experience to the position,” Don Rose, chair of the TGC Board, said in a written statement. “He will be an especially valuable addition to our organization during this period of growth and expansion in the gaming industry.”

In addition to holding a bachelor’s degree, Rose said, Hicks is a Certified Public Accountant and held the finance director’s position before becoming chief. In his 12 years as the tribe’s leader, Rose said, Hicks became intimately familiar with the day-to-day business of the casino and was deeply involved with developing the tribe’s gaming industry and expanding it with the soon-to-open Murphy casino. 

“I’m honored that the commission would consider myself in that position,” Hicks told The Smoky Mountain News. “It’s a very important position for the tribe, especially with the expansion measures that we are going through currently, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”

But some tribal members are skeptical of the legitimacy of the hire, with announcement of Hicks’ new job stirring up a furor on the Facebook communities where tribal members swap news and views. 

“I think that he’s not qualified to do that job because of some of the things he has done as principal chief,” said Amy Walker, a tribal member who’s also one of the leaders in an effort to file a lawsuit against members of Tribal Council who gave themselves a controversial pay raise last year. 

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The raises, which Walker and others argue were illegal, came with backpay for the years when members supposedly should have already been receiving the extra money. Hicks, though he did not receive a salary increase at that time, recommended the raises and did receive backpay, according to documents provided by the attorney for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for Justice and Accountability, the group pushing for a lawsuit.

Another area of concern with the appointment arises from a perceived potential for conflict of interest. Though Hicks won’t start his new job until after his term as chief ends, the hiring process and contract negotiations happened while he was still in office. The three members of the TGC board, which hires the executive director, were all appointed by Hicks. Some wonder whether that reality might conflict with the section of the Cherokee code setting up the TGC that’s titled “Independence.”

“In all matters within its purview and responsibilities, the Commission shall be and shall act independently and autonomously from the Principal Chief and Tribal Council. No prior or subsequent review by the Principal Chief or Tribal Council of any actions of the Commission shall be required or permitted, except as otherwise explicitly provided in this chapter,” the section reads. 

Rose was quick to say that the commission was careful to keep political influence out of the equation, hiring an independent, Native-American-owned firm called Valliant Consulting Group, based in Albuquerque, to handle the hiring. The TGC provided a job description, and Valliant advertised it, assessed the applicants, conducted interviews and provided the board a ranked list of the top three contenders. 

“That was the whole purpose in going out to an executive search firm to independently let them determine who was the most qualified individual to fill this poison,” Rose said, acknowledging that in a community where everybody knows everybody, it could be hard to make a fair hiring decision without the help of an outside group. 

Hicks came in second on the list, Rose said, and the TGC initially offered the job to the top-ranked candidate. But that person demanded a salary higher than what the TGC was willing to pay, so the board went with Hicks. 

Hicks will earn “in excess of $200,000 plus benefits,” Rose said. That’s more than the $185,000 he earned as chief. 

Lambert, who won the election for principal chief in a landslide earlier this month, had held the executive director’s spot from the time it was created until he retired from it in January, a total of 22 years. His second-in-command, Rick Saunooke, has been acting director since Lambert left but was not interviewed for the position because he didn’t meet the qualifications, Rose said. Namely, the position description required at least a bachelor’s degree and Saunooke holds only an associate’s.

“We tried our hardest to keep this objective, unbiased approach,” Rose said. 

Rose said he’s happy to have Hicks on board and that the board approved his hire unanimously. Hicks has the credentials, and Rose said he doesn’t think it would have made sense to factor the political issues of the past into the decision. 

“Within the political arena, there’s always people who are extremely happy with the way things are done and people who are extremely unhappy with the way things are done,” he said. 

However, according to Walker, there’s a lot of unrest surrounding the decision among tribal members.

“I understand there’s a lot of people who are upset,” she said. 

Hicks, meanwhile, stands on his qualifications as an experienced manager of finances and of people. 

“I’m a well-qualified tribal member,” he said. 

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