Cherokee council asks for investigation into hire-fire decisions
Some members of the Cherokee Tribal Council are saying that something’s amiss in how hire-fire decisions are being made in tribal government, and in a narrow decision the council voted to order a third-party investigation into those issues.
“I have truly tried to sit back,” said Vice Chairman Brandon Jones, of Snowbird, before the vote. “My phone has blown up every day for the last six to eight months. Employees are reaching out to beg for help.”
Issues with personnel
Vice Chief Richie Sneed sparked the discussion with a speech delivered during his regular report to council at the beginning of August’s council meeting. Valuing and respecting people is core to what the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians stands for, he said, and he’s concerned that’s not happening when it comes to tribal employees. Since taking office in October, he said, he’s “repeatedly been approached” by employees who feel that their “right to due process under our current law has been violated.”
In particular, he said, council should look into the case of a former employee of the Tribal Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. Sneed sponsored a resolution — which council opted to discuss in closed session — asking that council step in to assure annual leave payout for Katina Price, who lost her job at the TABCC in February. According to Sneed, Price had not yet been given the leave payout due her despite multiple requests.
“There is no malice in my heart nor in my message,” he told council. “There is no desire to retaliate for any perceived wrongdoing. I have no desire to see anyone punished. The only desire I have is that an inquiry be made into the concerns of these employees, that their voices be heard and if there is a wrong that it be righted.”
Councilmember Travis Smith, of Birdtown, immediately followed Sneed’s speech with a move that council hire a third-party investigator to look into “wrongdoings” surrounding hires, transfers, promotions and other such decisions. Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, bristled at the suggestion.
“You placed this council in a predicament that goes against the ethics law that we passed this last month,” she said, moving to strike the item dealing with Price’s situation from the agenda. The move did not carry.
The TABCC is an independent board, she said, and when it comes to issues with tribal employees who aren’t governed by an independent board, it’s the executive’s job to handle the day-to-day of administration and personnel issues.
“Nowhere in there (tribal code) does it say we get to participate in what happens with the day-to-day with employees,” she said later in the discussion.
Not everyone agreed with that assessment.
“It is the chief’s day-to-day operations, but when there’s something that’s been done that nobody’s looking at, I think we need to step in,” said Councilmember Bo Crowe, of Wolfetown. “I think we do need to step in and help the employees.”
With the potential for leadership changes every four years when chief elections take place, added Councilmember Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird, shouldn’t council be working to ensure that tribal employees — especially those who are not in high-up, appointed position — feel secure in their jobs regardless of political change?
“When the next chief comes in in three years, are we going to have a process in place where nobody has to be afraid of going through that again?” Wachacha asked.
The chief’s response
But, going through what, exactly? Lambert approached the podium to tell council in no uncertain terms that he’s done nothing wrong and has merely been working to increase accountability and efficiency in government operations.
“The issues are very clear to me,” he said. “There are certain people that want to be chief. Let’s run next time.”
Lambert, who won the chief’s office with a landslide victory of 71 percent last year, took his clear-cut win as a mandate to clean house following the 12-year administration of former Principal Chief Michell Hicks. He told council he’s been going “12 hours a day seven days a week” and “running at 90 miles per hour” to make tribal government better and more accountable.
The day after Lambert’s October inauguration, he made immediate waves by transferring or eliminating positions for 14 tribal employees, prompting an emotional meeting of the former employees, their families and tribal leaders days later. Those decisions were part of an overall reorganization of some tribal operations and also designed to get people who Lambert said had proven themselves unworthy of trust out of responsible positions. However, many of those who had lost their positions said the decisions were personal.
“I’m going to do what I know is right for the tribe,” Lambert told council during the August meeting. “I’m going to work my tail off for the tribe. I’ll continue doing that. If that steps on certain people’s toes, I’m not going to apologize for that. I’ll do what in my heart I’m led to do.”
As to the multitudes of employees supposedly being terminated without cause right now, they don’t exist, Lambert said.
“There’s a lot of people around here that want to make a mountain out of a molehill,” he told council. “We have one person that has voluntarily walked in the last months because he got transferred because he was not doing his job.”
Lambert could have said as much to Sneed or any of the councilmembers who had questions, he said, and asked that they communicate with him directly in the future, rather than waiting until public council meetings to have such discussions.
“If you got a call as you say blowing up your phone, come address it with me,” he told council. “I can’t help if I don’t know.”
However, 55 percent of councilmembers’ votes sided with ordering the investigation, though no spending limit was included in the impromptu move and no written resolution accompanied the vote.
Wachacha, Jones, Smith, Chairman Bill Taylor, of Wolfetown; Councilmember Albert Rose, of Birdtown; and Councilmember Alan “B” Ensley, of Yellowhill, all voted in favor of the investigation, comprising 55 weighted votes of the total 100. While only seven weighted votes were cast opposing the legislation, the remaining 38 abstained.
McCoy was one of those abstentions. She believed that casting a vote one way or another would constitute a violation of the ethics code, which council adopted last month. If council continued to discuss the matter in open session, she said, she would “leave the room and not vote at all and be deemed absent.”
The decision isn’t a done deal, however.
“I will be expecting that motion and move to be reduced to writing so I have the opportunity to fulfill my duties on veto,” Lambert told council.
To override a veto, council will need a two-thirds majority — less than the margin by which Smith’s move passed. If Lambert vetos the resolution, the group in favor of investigation would need to garner the support of additional councilmembers for the decision to stand.