Sneed was elected as vice chief in 2015 but sworn in as principal chief following the impeachment of then-Chief Patrick Lambert in May 2017. He’ll be seeking his first elected term to the seat against McCoy, a 20-year veteran of the Tribal Council who positioned herself as a staunch opponent of the impeachment process and of Sneed’s swearing-in as chief.
While Sneed and McCoy agree on some things — the importance of saving the Cherokee language, addressing the opioid epidemic and supporting the recently formed Kituwah LLC — they disagree on others, such as how to respond to the Catawba Indian Nation’s efforts to open a casino in North Carolina and whether the tribal government currently lacks transparency.
McCoy charges that, while the tribe has a freedom of information law in place, the Sneed administration has failed to make that information easily accessible. Under her administration, she promised, the public would be provided “every tool they need at every level of government” so that public information can be provided in an efficient and understandable manner.
McCoy spoke decisively against Tribal Council’s policy, in place for more than a year, to forbid any members of the media from entering its chambers except for those working for the tribally owned Cherokee One Feather.
“The fastest way for a government to overthrow its public is to get control of its publications,” said McCoy. “And our government’s publications are going to have good things. Our public information will have things that are not so good. But the bottom line is that members of this tribe have the right to read those materials and form their own opinions.”
Sneed said he also opposes the media ban but that chamber rules are Tribal Council’s decision.
“I am a staunch believer that the free press is the fourth branch of government, that the role of the press is to hold accountable the other three branches of government,” he said. “Do I agree with the media ban? No, it’s silly. That’s their prerogative though.”
As to transparency, Sneed said that his administration has already dealt with those issues.
“Explain to me some areas where we lack transparency, and we’ll correct it,” he said.
Sneed expressed a similar position in a debate The One Feather hosted June 27, and on July 8 the paper published an editorial taking issue with candidates who said tribal government has no transparency issues. Editor Robert Jumper wrote that many requests from the paper result in unanswered emails and unreturned phone calls. The Smoky Mountain News has had these issues as well, and in the past two years has been told by the Attorney General’s office that public records could be given to enrolled members only and had its request for a copy of the fiscal year 2019 budget declined.
However, said Sneed, transparency has been on the upswing. The proposed budget for 2020, which he was days away from presenting to Tribal Council at the time of his interview with SMN, includes line-by-line expenditures for all departments and will be available to the media after it’s delivered to council, he said.
Sneed’s administration has made great strides in addressing the housing shortage, he said.
Sneed said he started the application process to put the long-unused Coopers Creek property into tribal trust, and this fall, 85 apartment units will open in Painttown with an additional 25 units going in on adjoining property. The ribbon will soon be cut on a development of duplexes, and a master plan is being completed for the 220-acre Camp Creek property. The tribe has also initiated a rate buy-down and down payment assistance program for members looking to buy property off of tribal land.
Addressing the housing issue is of utmost importance, said McCoy. If elected, one of the first things she would do would be to meet with Tribal Council to discuss ideas to enhance housing opportunities, and from that discussion a prioritized plan would be developed, including beefed up training in trades required for homebuilding. The goal would be to develop a “safe, standard home” that can be offered to families, “like the ones we built for their grandparents years ago.” McCoy also favors using tiny homes for land that’s too rugged for traditional housing and purchasing property for housing complexes.
Sneed and McCoy agreed that economic diversification should be a priority for the tribe and expressed support for Kituwah LLC, a new economic development arm the tribe created in March 2018.
McCoy said she would support providing the LLC with the financial resources it needs to carry out its mission of providing the tribe financial growth and sustainability through pursuit of various business interests. She sees this as a better long-term plan than simply placing tribal dollars in various investment accounts. The recession in 2008 showed what can happen to such accounts in case of an economic downturn, she said, so the tribe should also invest in businesses that maintain a level of stability even in a bad economy.
In regard to the threat of encroachment on casino proceeds from the Catawba, McCoy said the legislation required to make that possible is “not going to happen.” However, she said, in the event that it does, she would favor maintaining open dialogue with the Catawba.
“Historically Indian tribes for many years went to war with each other,” she said. “Today it is in the best interest of all tribes to maintain open dialogue, to communicate and to develop partnerships to rely on each other.”
Sneed said that financial stability starts with responsible budgeting — the budget he submitted for fiscal year 2019 was “the most fiscally conservative in a decade,” he said, based on 82 percent of casino projections, and the proposal for 2020 will be 80 percent of projection, with a goal of someday reaching 75 percent.
The LLC is the key to diversifying revenue, he said, and is off to a promising start.
While the Catawba issue is significant — Sneed has often spoken out against the proposed casino in Cleveland County and the bill introduced in Congress attempting to make it happen — it’s not the only future obstacle for the tribe’s casino business.
“I don’t want to say it’s secondary, because that’s a pretty big threat, but as I’ve said to council and to community members, attitude toward gaming is changing rapidly across this country,” he said.
What the tribe needs to do is purchase property in neighboring states such as Tennessee and Georgia where it can build hotel and conference center facilities and thereby position itself to be competitive for a license should gaming come to those states.
Both candidates say that the language can be saved, but they differ on the techniques they believe will play the biggest role.
Sneed said the tribe should contract with an outside firm to study best practices from other tribes and then evaluate what Cherokee is doing against that information. But to truly save the language, he said, tribal members need to commit to speaking it with each other in public. This year his administration implemented an adult immersion program in which the tribe pays young people to spend 40 hours each week with Cherokee speakers. A Cherokee language primer will soon be offered free to tribal members.
McCoy said that she wants to meet with the tribe’s speakers very soon after being elected so she can hear their thoughts and theories on how to preserve the language. Technology and recordings will be key, she said. The tribe must archive its Cherokee-language songs and sermons and communicate regularly with the other Cherokee tribes on preservation strategies. Expanding New Kituwah Academy through middle and high school will also be a priority.
McCoy believes that prevention education for young people will be key to quelling the epidemic. Positive steps include a new recovery facility in Snowbird, a crisis stabilization unit under construction in Cherokee and the Mother Town Project to help those in recovery re-enter the workforce. She submitted the legislation that resulted in the tribe’s needle exchange program, which has shown itself to be successful by various metrics.
Sneed echoed McCoy’s praise of the tribe’s new programs and facilities to address the crisis. Like McCoy, he believes that arresting addicts — unless they do something else illegal, like stealing — is not the answer. There is a fine line between helping and enabling, but community members have to understand that relapses will happen along the road to recovery.
Meet the candidates
• Age: 51
• Education/Experience: Sneed spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, owned Cornerstone Automotive for five years and was a pastor for 14 years and an industrial arts teacher at Cherokee High School for 12 years, with those two professions overlapping. He was elected as vice chief in 2015 and sworn in as principal chief in 2017. Sneed is an ASE Certified Master Mechanic and earned his teaching certification from Southwestern Community College and University of North Carolina Asheville.
• Biggest accomplishment in office: Sneed came into office during a turbulent time in tribal history and said that he is most proud of “the ability of this administration and the team I have around me to mend a lot of wounds and to demonstrate what good governance looks like.”
• Top three priorities: Get the budget down to 75 percent of casino projections; complete an elders campus adjoining the hospital; continue to help Kituwah LLC grow and increase revenue streams.
• Why should voters choose you? “The evidence supports that over the last two years we’ve demonstrated excellent stewardship over tribal resources. We’ve demonstrated good governance. We’ve demonstrated that we have a vision for economic development that will ensure that our future is secure.”
• Age: 59
• Education/Experience: McCoy was first elected as a Big Cove representative on Tribal Council in 1987, and in the 32 years since she has served 20 years on the body, sponsoring 140 pieces of legislation in that time. McCoy is a graduate of Cherokee High School and attended SCC and Western Carolina University for three years but left to begin working after starting a family.
• Biggest accomplishment on council: McCoy is proud of the many pieces of legislation she has submitted and seen become law, including the tribe’s adoption of the Indian Civil Rights Act, the tribal Make a Wish program, occupancy taxes on lodging and the clean needle exchange program.
• Top three priorities if elected: Submit housing plans to Tribal Council to place Cherokee families in homes; secure additional funding for programs aimed at curbing the opioid epidemic; increase funding to Kituwah LLC.
• Why should voters choose you? “I bring a wealth of knowledge, strength, work ethic, honesty and integrity. I will defend the sovereignty of our nation. I will reach out and develop partnerships with the mountain people of North Carolina and federally recognized tribes of the south and all government agencies.”