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Council approves independence for Employee Rights Office

Council approves independence for Employee Rights Office

A second decision made during last week’s Cherokee Tribal Council meeting could affect how council’s decision to order a third-party investigation into Principal Chief Patrick Lambert’s administration fares on veto. 

During a heated discussion last week, some councilmembers — as well as Vice Chief Richie Sneed — said Lambert’s hire-fire decisions were not being made properly, and council narrowly voted to order an independent investigation into the issue. Lambert, meanwhile, said that he’s done nothing other than simply demand accountability from tribal employees and implied he’d be vetoing the legislation.  

Later that morning, Tribal Council voted to approve an ordinance strengthening the powers of the Tribal Employee Rights Office. The program’s primary goal is to ensure that rules giving tribal members preference in hiring are followed, but director Kevin Jackson hopes to see that focus expand into developing the next generation of the workforce and serving as a neutral third party to handle grievances from tribal employees. 

“When I took the position, what I found was an underfunded program that cannot regulate itself because the (TERO) Commission is independent, but the TERO office itself is a program (of tribal government). That’s not transparency,” Jackson said. “Employees have to have somewhere to go that will be a neutral party.” 

The updated ordinance grants TERO independence from the executive branch, to be governed by a board of commissioners. Commissioners are appointed by either the principal chief, Tribal Council or the planning board, with non-voting members from the business community also included in meetings. Tribal officials, executive staff and program directors can’t serve on the commission. 

Independence will allow TERO to better carry out its charge to advocate for the rights of employees, to give them somewhere to turn when they feel they’ve been wronged. 

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“If TERO is an independent office, you don’t need to go hire a third party,” Jackson told council, referring to their earlier vote ordering a third-party investigation. 

At full build-out, TERO’s functions would be more than just administrative, however. Jackson would like to start some training programs to get tribal members certified in trades such as electric work and construction. As he envisions it, program participants would get paid a monthly stipend, learn professional and life skills, and ultimately get put to work. 

The version Jackson initially pitched had TERO funded through an allocation from casino proceeds, bypassing the regular budget process — that funding mechanism would allow TERO to continue to grow and fulfill its mission, he said. However, the legislation was amended to reflect council’s view that TERO should continue to be included in the regular budget. The office will receive additional revenue by charging a fee on contracts exceeding $10,000.

Outside the disagreement over funding, councilmembers voiced strong support for the ordinance, but some expressed hesitation about casting a vote. The draft ordinance had just been completed, and neither the councilmembers nor Lambert had had a chance to thoroughly review it before the meeting.

“I have not had time to read this and study it, and I can’t support it until I study, and I won’t,” said Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown, seconding a move from Councilmember Alan “B” Ensley, of Yellowhill, to table the legislation. “That’s an injustice to my people.” 

“I certainly additionally would like to review it myself to make sure there’s not some other concerns that need to be addressed,” agreed Councilmember Anita Lossiah, of Yellowhill. 

Lambert shared those concerns. 

“There’s quite a few changes here that I don’t know we’ve all had the chance to fully look into,” he said, “but if it’s the desire of council to move forward today without reading this ordinance, that’s a tad unusual in itself, but I do support the concept of it.” 

However, council ultimately decided to vote the ordinance up or down, with only Saunooke, Ensley and Councilmember Richard French, of Big Cove, voting against it. 

“I’m glad,” said Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove. “This to me is what TERO’s supposed to be doing.” 

The legislation still requires ratification from Lambert to become law. 

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