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Chief Lambert’s personnel changes draw debate

fr cherokeePatrick Lambert didn’t waste any time making waves in his first full day as principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. That Tuesday morning, a handful of tribal employees received official letters stating their services were no longer needed, prompting an emotional meeting of the ex-employees, their families, Lambert, Vice Chief Richie Sneed and Tribal Council Oct. 8. 

“I need justification,” said Mollie Grant, who had served as director of EBCI Emergency Management. “I would like to know why. What did I do to be demoted?”

 Speaker after speaker at the Tribal Council meeting asked a variation of the same question, most declaring political affiliation as the only possible cause, many shedding tears and appearing with kids and spouses in tow. 

“I feel like I am getting punished because of who I supported,” Grant said. 

John Cameron Cooper agreed, telling council that former Principal Chief Michell Hicks was a close friend of his father’s and, by extension, of himself and his wife Brandi. Brandi Cooper was transferred from her job as director of the Heart-to-Heart Child Advocacy Center to a much lower-paying position. 

“The only reason she’s standing here today is because of that relationship (with Michell Hicks),” said John Cameron Cooper, standing before council with his wife and daughter. “Now I want to tell you, sir (Patrick Lambert), are you going to pay for this child to have a roof over her head?”

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Lambert listened but didn’t waver on his message. Politics did not influence the transfers, he said. He was only carrying out the mandate voters had placed upon him when they catapulted him to office with 71 percent of the vote. The 14 letters that went out Oct. 6 are the only ones he plans to send out, he said. The six people who saw their positions eliminated were deputy-level employees, which typically change when a new administration comes in, and he’s planning to reorganize the way those positions work. The eight people who were transferred to other positions, Lambert said, are aware of the reasons why, and they have nothing to do with politics. 

“Quite frankly, the actions I’m taking are about transparency and doing what the people are asking for,” he said. 

That applies to more than just personnel changes. Lambert’s had all TVs removed from tribal offices. He’s requiring that all telephones are answered, all desks manned. 

“The work from home mentality is over with,” he said. 

Moreover, he’s in the midst of doing forensic audits of multiple departments. 

“There’s been some crimes committed, and I fully intend to pursue this,” Lambert said. 

Lambert wouldn’t comment on the specific reasons why the employees were terminated or transferred, as that’s a private personnel matter, but maintained each decision had a real, compelling reason behind it. 


A question of procedure

But why go about it the way that he did? It was jarring, at best, to get the letter out of the blue, from a pair of uniformed officers at a time when his department was all-hand-on-deck with the Cherokee Indian Fair, said Jason Lambert, who until Oct. 6 was the tribe’s director of commerce. But more importantly, Jason Lambert said, the process didn’t jive with tribal code. 

“There is no doubt that Principal Chief Patrick Lambert and Vice Chief Richie Sneed violated multiple sections of the tribal code within 24 hours of taking their oaths of office,” Jason Lambert said. “My question to you, Tribal Council, is what are you going to do as our legislative body about it?”

“This bloodshed right now is on your back also, because that’s what it is — bloodshed,” former Principal Chief Michell Hicks agreed, addressing Sneed and Patrick Lambert. 

Under the reorganization, Jason Lambert’s position was eliminated. The officers who delivered the letter had been told to watch him read it and then have him turn over any tribal property in his possession. The termination was immediate. 

Jason Lambert cited the section of Cherokee code dealing with involuntary separation, with states that reorganization requires a joint plan from the chief and vice chief, and states employees be given two weeks’ notice and the opportunity to transfer to a job of the same pay grade or higher. 

“The letter that was delivered to me from Principal Chief Patrick H. Lambert desecrated tribal law,” said Jason Lambert, who has used this particular section of tribal code before when leading a reorganization of his own department. 

Not so, maintained Patrick Lambert. 

“I’ve had myself checked through legal, through HR, and both of those divisions of the tribe had both checked off that this was done within proper boundaries,” Patrick Lambert said in a follow-up interview. “Now it’s never an easy process, but it happens and I made sure that we were handling it properly.”

Patrick Lambert referred to another section of tribal law, which deals with levels of organizational authority and gives the principal chief the authority to “maintain and revise as necessary” the tribe’s organizational structure, and said that terminated employees are being given two weeks’ pay. 

“I’m changing the structure of the tribe in terms of lines of reporting authority, making it more accountable, more streamlined, more efficient,” Patrick Lambert said. 

Angela Kephart, however, who had sat on the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise board, begged to differ. Her letter, she told council, merely voiced Patrick Lambert’s acceptance of her resignation — even though she hadn’t resigned. 

“He then said, ‘I received information you resigned from this board,’” Kephart said, recounting her subsequent phone call with Patrick Lambert. “I said, ‘No, I hadn’t.’ Then he immediately gets defensive and said, ‘Angie, I’m trying to do this in a nice and polite way, but if you want to take that route, I’ll take it to council and I’ll have you removed from that board.”

There are plenty of reasons Kephart shouldn’t be on the board, Patrick Lambert said, and he wanted to give her the chance to resign quietly. 

“I understand the people here today are upset about things, but as I stated earlier there’s certain things that happened in these jobs that they understand,” Patrick Lambert said. “The people elected me to make these changes.”

Grant, however, said she wanted to see the reasons written in black and white. 

“It would have saved a lot of trouble for us. We would have known where to go if there was justification in here of what we did,” Grant said. “Why didn’t he (Patrick Lambert) call us in his office and say, ‘This is what you’ve done wrong and why you’re being bumped from a level 11 to a level 3?’ All of these employees, we’re wondering what we did other than support the other party.”

Councilmembers seemed sympathetic to the ex-employees’ plight. 

“That’s one of the things we talked about earlier with him (Patrick Lambert),” said Chairman Bill Taylor. “He said that he’s willing to do the one-one-one with each and every one of you and discuss it. I think that probably should have come first.” 

“I think it went too far on too many levels, and I can’t help but think and in my heart believe that some of this was political payback,” said Vice Chair Brandon Jones. 

However, many people applaud Patrick Lambert’s actions, praising them as evidence that he’s following through on his campaign promise to ‘clean house.’

“Several (of the affected workers) were not professional in doing their jobs,” said Lea Wolf, a tribal member who runs Tsa-La-Gi Voice, a popular Facebook group for Cherokee people to exchange news and views, speaking from personal experience. “Phone calls were not returned, attitudes and unprofessionalism were at the top of that list. My personal opinion is they didn’t just get kicked out in the cold. He did offer another job.”

While the transfer letters offered jobs of much lower responsibility and pay than the positions their recipients had held, Patrick Lambert said those replacement positions were “placeholders” rather than hard and fast offers. 

“In my mind each one of them had the opportunity to come talk to me,” Patrick Lambert said. “Three of them have already. I think they’re more satisfied than they were.”


A laundry list of the first week

Emotion and controversy surrounded the personnel decisions Principal Chief Patrick Lambert announced Oct. 6, but a slew of other actions went through as well with a good bit less hubbub surrounding them. 

  • Received authorization to work on a draft tribal Constitution. 
  • Reinstated a 5 percent 401k match for tribal employees. The match had been capped at 3 percent in recent years. 
  • Received authorization to conduct a tribal census. 
  • Negotiated an agreement for fire and emergency medical services at the Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino and Hotel in Murphy that won’t require the tribe to build new facilities. 
  • Doubled the amount tribal elders and handicapped people receive at Christmas from $250 to $500. 

“I’m going to stick to my word,” Lambert said. “We’ve talked about a lot of different things in the campaign, a lot of goals and things that need to be fixed on behalf of the tribe, so I came out of the gate meeting a few of those head on.”

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