By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
A quick search on Indeed.com, an employment research website, for “Native American Tribal Council”, “Native American Tribal Chief” and “Native American Vice-Chief”, results in annual average salary information of $92,000, $132,000 and $76,000, respectively. When I added the geographic location information of Cherokee, North Carolina, the results were similar ($86,000 for Tribal Council Representative, $123,000 for Principal Chief and $71,000 for Vice Chief). These are not necessarily actual rates of pay, only estimations based on data collected and aggregated by Indeed.com.
Government work is hard. Many people see elected officials sitting in seats elevated above floor level, looking down on a podium and gallery of people and imagine the grandeur of a kingdom. After all, the Tribal Council and Executive Office are in a position to dictate how the Cherokee people will function as a society. These are positions of great power. While the functionality of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians resembles the municipalities of our surrounding counties, the tribe is federally recognized as a nation unto itself. Tribal Council could rightfully be equated to Congress or Parliament and the Principal Chief to a President or Prime Minister.
But, there is much more to the job than sitting in a horseshoe and making decrees. Government officials are public servants. The definition of their duties is service to the constituency or the community that each has been given the opportunity to serve. They are the purveyors of the will of the people. So, off camera, they roll up their sleeves and dive into hours of law review, proposed law and public comment. They position themselves to hear their community through meetings and gatherings. They are bombarded with texts, phone messages, in-person conversations and emails about issues affecting their constituents. They dig graves, attend funerals, clean driveways and serve elder meals. It is how they stay in touch with the people they represent, and it is how they earn and maintain public trust.
Losing touch with the people and violating the public’s trust can be devastating to an elected official. Even the perception of impropriety has long lasting, negative results (losing your seat, impeachment, legal action and prosecution). Recent events concerning Tribal Council pay raises are a good example. To date, no actual finding of fact has indicated that any violation of ethical or judicial code has taken place, but because of the perception that money was inappropriately appropriated and distributed to Council members, there has been a public outcry and lawsuits filed. It is likely that voters gave some thought to who they might vote for in the 2015 tribal elections based on the issue of Tribal Council pay.
Current tribal law gives Tribal Council the authority to enact raises for itself (the Principal Chief must either approve or veto, but as with any other legislation, a veto may be overridden by a supermajority of Council). According to law, they are supposed to wait until the “off election” year to enact pay or election laws, which is at the center of the current controversy over elected official pay. An argument is being made that laws were enacted and executed during an election year and that retroactive pay has been illegally been given based on that action. The counter argument is that a previous law entitled Council to the annual increases that they had not received in the ensuing years since the law had been put in place.
Again, even the perception of impropriety can have consequences. How could this be remedied? Well, one suggestion is to move the power to enact raises for elected officials directly into the hands of the people. Create law that demands any pay raise for them has to be done through a referendum on ballots at election time. Leaving the decision to the elected officials creates an ethical dilemma in each individual seat. Some might think that they are being paid too much; others not nearly enough. Because of the weighted voting system that the tribe employs, it would only take five representatives to vote in a raise; seven representatives to override a veto. Ask any tribal employee, or any employee, if they would like to have the ability to decide the amount of their salary every year simply by affirmation. My guess is that the tribal budget would see a reduction in services because of a bloated payroll. In human resource departments, positions are evaluated and base pays are established. When an employee wants a raise, they have to go the people they work for and request it. They are evaluated by their employer and the employer decides if the employee gets a raise.
Again, elected officials are public servants. Their bosses are…well…you, the Cherokee community. I think it is up to you to decide how and when our elected official are compensated.