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Board can now begin quest to diversify tribal revenue

The Kituwah Economic Development Board is now ready to start pursuing expanded business opportunities for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians after Tribal Council approved appointments and a compensation plan for the venture last week. 

“I appreciate Tribal Council for having the foresight and leadership to approve the LLC ordinance and to approve the compensation matrix so that we could get this board seated,” said Principal Chief Richard Sneed as he presented his nominations for the board during Tribal Council June 7. “Every opportunity I’ve had to speak about the LLC, people have had questions about it. I remind people this is economic diversification. This is the vehicle by which we will be able to diversify our revenue stream.”

The newly seated board will be tasked with overseeing an LLC created through a tribal ordinance adopted in March, with the goal of establishing contracts and enterprises that will grow the tribe’s revenue streams beyond what’s produced at the casino. Casino profits are strong, but threat of increased competition for Georgia gaming customers has existed for years, and tribal leaders want to move away from a budget that’s dependent on the rise or fall of a single industry. Through the LLC, the tribe can fund startups, land government contracts or pursue any of a limitless array of possibilities to generate revenue. 

 

Payment plan approved

Sneed submitted his payment plan for the board — which is composed of five members, three from the EBCI and two from other Native American tribes — during the June 5 Budget Council meeting. He pitched a “results-based” plan, with a baseline pay of $25,000 that is “really on the low end for what we’re asking them to do.” That salary will increase as the LLC meets specific net profit benchmarks. Compensation would increase by $5,000 when the LLC meets goals of $5 million, $15 million, $50 million and $75 million. When net profit reaches $100 million, the salary will reach its cap, which the resolution states will be equivalent to what Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise and Tribal Gaming Commission board members make, currently $80,000 — the same as Tribal Council.   

“Boards and commissions in the past have been political candy, and we’re saying here you have to produce. You have to perform,” Sneed said in Budget Council.

In addition, the resolution states, the principal chief can appoint a political appointee in his administration to the board as a voting member, but that person would not be paid for his or her service. 

Some councilmembers balked at that provision, with Councilmember Albert Rose, of Birdtown, asking that it be struck from the resolution. Sneed responded that Tribal Council retains the power to confirm appointees regardless, so if there were a problem with a specific person, Tribal Council could simply opt not to confirm. 

“To follow up on Albert’s questions, why would you want a political appointment there?” said Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown.

“The long and short was the name I put forward was Paula Wotjkowski. She’s the secretary of commerce, so there’s a line of communication between this side of the house and the LLC,” said Sneed. “But this body would have to confirm whether or not that person is a member of this board.”

Council spent the next 20 minutes discussing Rose’s concern, with some members agreeing that the board shouldn’t include any political appointees and others saying they were fine with it, especially if that person were to serve as an unpaid member. 

“You’ve got somebody who’s going to be productive and not getting paid for it,” said Councilmember Boyd Owle, of Birdtown. “The more heads the better.”

Councilmember Bo Crowe, of Wolfetown, wanted to take it a step further and see the secretary of commerce sit as chairman of the board. However, said Sneed, that would reduce the board’s stability in the face of political changes, as such appointments typically last only as long as the administration that appoints them. In addition, he said, boards have traditionally selected their own chairs. 

When it came down to it, the choice of whether to allow political appointees on the board was decided narrowly, with a weighted vote of 52-48 against striking the section. 

Voting to strike were Councilmember Jeremy Wilson, of Wolfetown; Councilmember Bo Crowe, of Wolfetown; Councilmember Lisa Taylor, of Painttown, Saunooke and Rose. Voting to keep the paragraph in were Councilmember Tom Wahnetah, of Yellowhill; Vice Chairman David Wolfe, of Yellowhill; Councilmember Richard French, of Big Cove; Councilmember Perry Shell, of Big Cove; Councilmember Bucky Brown, of Snowbird; Chairman Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird, and Councilmember Boyd Owle, of Birdtown. 

Several of those who had wanted to strike the section about political appointees — Saunooke, Taylor and Rose — proceeded to vote against the resolution as a whole, but the remaining nine councilmembers voted to pass it. 

 

Board members seated

The next step was to seat the inaugural board. Sneed brought those nominations before Tribal Council two days later, during its monthly meeting June 7. 

Some councilmembers initially balked at being asked to approve the nominations, saying that they’d like to see a different kind of process used to select and vet candidates before presenting them to Tribal Council for a final vote. 

“I believe wholeheartedly that it’s important that you have the ability to know what the qualifications of these individuals are when I’m putting them forward,” said Sneed. “Therefore I’ve provided résumés beforehand. To date no process has been established. That is up to this legislative body to create a process.”

“We knew we didn’t have it in the code, but we were leaning toward that — present the résumés, we’ll set up a day, come in an interview them,” said Vice Chairman David Wolfe.

Sneed then replied that he’d given Tribal Council the résumés two months ago, so the body had time to set up a work session if it so desired or to discuss any concerns with him directly. 

“I don’t want anyone to be embarrassed by coming in here and not being confirmed,” said Sneed. “That’s why I give you the opportunity up front to say I don’t support that person and here’s why.”

Other councilmembers chimed in to say that, while there might be a need to establish a better process, there’s a pressing need to get the Kituwah Economic Development Board established now. 

“As of right now, we need to get this board set. We need to get this thing rolling. We need to get boots on the ground,” said Wahnetah. “We need a process. We need to work on that, but first we need to get this done. I think he’s (Sneed has) done his homework with these résumés. I don’t have a problem on any of them.”

“We’re losing millions by not doing other enterprises,” Saunooke agreed. “I’m ready to go too. I know we don’t have a policy but whose fault’s that? It’s ours.”

In the meantime, Shell added, there’s no doubt that the names Sneed presented were those of qualified people well equipped to do the job. 

“It’s a hard, hard decision to pick from these qualified, talented, smart, capable, competent people we have in this tribe,” said Shell. “It’s sad that we can’t pick them all, but we have to make a selection, and what’s happening right here is exactly why we need an LLC board to make a decision. This council hasn’t been able to make decisions in business development. We’ve had opportunity after opportunity that hasn’t been acted on.”

Editor’s note: This story was reported using online meeting videos, as Tribal Council’s recent decision to ban non-Cherokee media from its chambers prevents The Smoky Mountain News from attending in person. 

 

The board members

The Cherokee Tribal Council voted separately on each of Principal Chief Richard Sneed’s nominations to the newly formed Kituwah Economic Development Board, with unanimous votes in favor of each name. The ordinance forming the board states that three of the five members must be members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, with the remaining two members from other federally recognized Native American tribes. Members serve five-year terms, with shorter initial board appointments to allow for staggered terms. While the passed resolution allows it, Sneed did not end up nominating one of his administration’s political appointees for the board.

• Sam Owle, term ending Sept. 30, 2021. Owle is a member of the EBCI and holds a master’s degree in accounting and business management from the University of Tennessee Knoxville. He is a Certified Public Accountant and Chartered Global Management Accountant, and has worked as the chief financial officer for the National Congress of American Indians. 

• Chrissy Arch, term ending Sept. 30, 2022. Arch is a member of the EBCI and holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration and accounting from Western Carolina University. She has served as chief operating officer for the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority since 2012. She previously worked eight years for the EBCI, first as accounting manager and then as travel and tourism manager. 

• Adam West, term ending Sept. 30, 2023. West is a member of the EBCI and holds a master’s degree in business administration from Western Carolina University. Having worked at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort since 1997, he currently serves as vice president of operations there. 

• Stacy Leeds, term ending Sept. 20, 2020. Leeds is a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and is a graduate of the University of Tulsa College of Law, also holding a Master of Laws degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School and a master’s of business administration from the University of Tennessee. She has served on the Supreme Court of the Cherokee Nation and currently works for Arkansas State University as interim vice chancellor for economic development and professor and dean of admissions in the School of Law. 

• Lance Morgan, term ending Sept. 30, 2019. Morgan is a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and is a graduate of Harvard Law School. He is president and CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc., a successful tribal LLC that was formed in 1994. 

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