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Cherokee council, chief tussle over veto power

Cherokee council, chief tussle over veto power

When the Cherokee Tribal Council voted last month to investigate hiring and firing practices in tribal government, Principal Chief Patrick Lambert made clear that he intended to veto the legislation. But now, Tribal Council is saying that the vote fell outside the scope of Lambert’s veto power and refuses to submit a written document for him to veto. 

“After a discussion and reviewing the Legislative Counsel’s legal memorandum on this issue, the Tribal Council’s investigation authority does not require the Principal Chief’s approval…In light of this, the Tribal Operations Program will not reduce the investigation vote to writing,” Vice-Chairman Brandon Jones, of Snowbird, wrote in an Aug. 9 memo to Lambert’s office. 

Jones’ letter references Chapter 117 of tribal code, which gives council and its committees the power to “investigate the affairs of the tribe.” Investigations can include subpoenaing witnesses, administering oaths and compelling the production of evidence, the ordinance states.  

According to the response he sent Jones Aug. 11, Lambert, who holds a law degree, has a different opinion of what the law says.

“It seems there is a mistaken belief that I cannot veto an act of Council due to an ordinance provision found in Chapter 117 of the Cherokee Code,” Lambert wrote. “However, it is clear that the Charter and Governing Document is the overriding power and authority and without question is the law that we all swear to uphold and take an oath to defend.”

In Cherokee law, the Charter and Governing Document is the overarching document that lays the framework for how tribal government should work. The code of ordinances falls underneath the charter, delineating the particulars of how that should work. 

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And the charter, it turns out, has some things to say about what is required to pass an act of council. Acts must be signed by the council’s chairman and clerks and countersigned by either the principal chief or the vice chief — the chief has veto power over all acts of council, with a two-thirds majority required to overturn a veto. 

“An act of Council was taken as clearly evidenced by a move, a second on the move, a question called on the move and a vote was taken,” Lambert wrote. 

The move to investigate had been spurred by comments Vice Chief Richie Sneed made during the Aug. 4 Tribal Council meeting. Sneed told council that since taking office he had been “repeatedly approached” by employees who “believe that policies have not been adhered to in regard to transfers, demotions, re-organizations, hirings and terminations.”   

“The only desire that 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, and that our employees be granted the full measure of their rights under the law,” Sneed said. 

Lambert, meanwhile, countered that there are no multitudes of wrongfully fired or transferred people crying out to the chief’s office. The only person who’s lost a job recently, he said, was someone who decided to quit after being transferred following failure to get the streets cleaned up for Independence Day, which was a duty of the position. Lambert reminded council that he was elected to office in a 71-percent landslide and has since been working to make the changes necessary to achieve an efficient and accountable government. 

“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,” he said. “I’ll do what in my heart I’m led to do.” 

This is not the first time this year that Tribal Council has ordered an investigation. In April, council launched an investigation into Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise board member Angela Kephart following allegations that she had conducted herself poorly during a February concert at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. 

No vote was taken to order that investigation, however. After a resolution requesting Kephart’s removal from the board failed, Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, asked Chairman Bill Taylor, of Wolfetown, for an investigation into the situation. That request does not appear to have been reduced to writing for ratification by the principal chief. 

However, unlike in Kephart’s case, the conversation surrounding Lambert’s hire-fire decisions ended, as Lambert said in his letter, with a move, a second on the move and a vote to pass — that means, he wrote, that it is legislation subject to veto.

Therefore, he wrote, “I hereby veto the act taken by Council on Aug. 4, 2016 to conduct an ‘investigation’ into personnel matters.”

Councilmember Travis Smith, of Birdtown, moved to find a third party to investigate human resource decisions in the executive branch, and Jones seconded the motion with the amendment that all hiring, firing and transfers cease until an investigation is complete. The move passed narrowly, earning 55 of the 100 weighted votes the 12 councilmembers hold. To override a veto, one or two more councilmembers — different councilmembers hold different numbers of weighted votes dependent on their community’s population — would need to join the group favoring investigation. 

Councilmember Alan “B” Ensley, of Yellowhill; Councilmember Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird; Councilmember Albert Rose, of Birdtown, Taylor, Smith and Jones voted to pass it. Councilmember Anita Lossiah, of Yellowhill, provided the sole nay vote, but the remaining councilmembers abstained. Councilmember Richard French, of Big Cove, Councilmember Bo Crowe, of Wolfetown; Councilmember Marie Junaluska, of Painttown; Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown; and McCoy were the abstentions. 

McCoy had said in the meeting that voting either way would be an ethical violation, as the day-to-day of tribal government is the Principal Chief’s responsibility, not for Tribal Council to get involved with. Lambert appears to agree with that assessment. 

“I issue this veto because it violates not only the Charter and Governing Document on the powers and duties of my office, but also the separation of powers between the Legislative and Executive Branch,” he wrote. “The separation of powers is vital to our Tribal Government and our people and the actions taken by a few of your members clearly violate this essential balance.”

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