Tribe added to council of governments
For the first time in the Southwestern Commission’s 53-year history, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has a seat at the table.
The Commission’s board of directors — composed of representatives from each county and municipal government in the seven-county region — voted to amend its bylaws and add the EBCI during its March meeting.
“The tribe is really the largest economic driver in the region now, so I think it’s appropriate that we have a seat at the table, that we have input, because all of the issues we’re facing — it is the same across the board,” said Principal Chief Richard Sneed.
Sarah Thompson, executive director of the commission, agreed with that assessment.
“We serve the seven western counties as a region, and the EBCI, the Qualla Boundary, it’s right in the middle of that region,” she said. “Their issues are inherently tied to the issues of the rest of the region with economic development and workforce and housing. I think in the spirit of working cooperatively and regionally, it makes a lot of sense for us to work together.”
Thompson said the move came out of ongoing conversations she’d had with Sneed. Thompson then brought the suggestion to add the EBCI before the board, which approved it.
“They’ve always been a key player in our region, and especially within this county, because part of the boundary lies within Jackson County,” Jackson County Commissioner Brian McMahan said when he announced the Southwestern Commission’s new member during an April 2 county commissioner meeting. “I’m not sure the history on why they haven’t been included thus far, but the good news is now the chief (Sneed) is there, and we voted to add them as a voting member to our board of directors.”
Thompson said that when the Southwestern Commission formed in 1965, it was set up as a body to serve local governments, with the funding it disperses tied to counties — that’s likely why the EBCI wasn’t included at that time.
“Because they are a sovereign nation, it’s a little different,” she said. “A lot of the funding that we deal with goes to local governments, and it’s not that that funding isn’t available to tribes — it just goes to them through other funding streams.”
The tribe’s having a seat at the table won’t change the way funding is dispersed. The Southwestern Commission’s budget is entirely programmatic, meaning that different pots of money are tied to different requirements for dispersal — the EBCI’s new status as a voting member won’t change the stipulations surrounding how funds are spent. However, other members of the board of directors will now have a chance to hear the tribe’s perspective on issues and to better collaborate regionally to address those issues.
“I think everyone that’s involved with the Commission is all of the same mindset that when we partner, especially on things such as economic development, the region will prosper,” Sneed said.
The Southwestern Commission Board of Directors meets at 7 p.m. on the fourth Monday of every odd-numbered month at the Chestnut Tree Inn in Cherokee.