By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
Tribal Council approved a measure earlier this month to wage an investigation into various personnel issues regarding tribal employees of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The investigation, approved during the regular session of Council on Thursday, Aug. 4, was not an official resolution but grew out of a discussion and was not put in writing.
That action was vetoed by Principal Chief Patrick Lambert one week later. In a letter to Tribal Council Vice Chairman Brandon Jones, dated Thursday, Aug. 11, he wrote, “I received your memorandum dated Aug. 9, 2016 advising that the above stated action and vote taken by Tribal Council would not be reduced to writing. 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. 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.”
Chief Lambert cites Chapter 12 of the Charter as well as Chapter 13 which states, “The Principal Chief shall have the power to veto all acts of Council.”
In the letter, he goes on to state, “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.”
Chief Lambert finished his veto letter by saying, “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. 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.”
The original measure stemmed from a report by Vice Chief Richard G. Sneed during the Council session Aug. 4. “We’re not just coming to a job every day, we’re here serving our people. I believe that we have some of the most comprehensive personnel policies in place and that they demonstrate our commitment to the success of our employees and their families.”
He said the Tribe believes in the personnel policy so strongly it has been codified into law. “When an employee misses the mark, as we all sometimes do, there are policies in place to bring them back into alignment as part of our team. We recognize that, by doing so, we strengthen our communities and families by helping one another be the very best at work and at home.”
Vice Chief Sneed, who related he has no malice in the situation, said he has been approached by numerous tribal employees seeking assistance in various personnel matters. “I have no desire to see anyone punished. 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.”
Birdtown Rep. Travis Smith made a motion that Tribal Council find a third party to wage an investigation “into the wrongdoings that have been brought to light”.
He said tribal employees frequently contact him with grievances. “I think that the terminations, the hires, the transfers, the demotions, the raises – all of that needs to be looked into. I think that if we look into that and give these people their due diligence and their rights as laid out in the personnel policy, then I think it needs to be made right.”
Big Cove Rep. Teresa McCoy said that she felt Tribal Council getting involved in personnel matters would be a violation of the newly passed Ethics Code. “I get concerns brought to my attention by employees, and you know how I handle that? I handle it based on policy that the Vice Chief here is talking about. Apparently, he didn’t read them. So, I suggest that we take the time to sit down and go through this stuff.”
Vice Chairman Jones made a motion, which was accepted, to add to the measure that all hiring, firing, and transfer actions cease until the investigation is completed. “My phone has blown up every day for the last six to eight months. Employees are begging. They’re reaching out for help. They feel like they don’t have any process to go through…Secretaries are telling employees ‘remember who signs your paycheck’. What is that? That’s bullying. That’s intimidation. That’s fear.”
He added that he wants to see work charts for tribal departments and divisions. “We’ve got employees here, on the property today, being paid, and their jobs have never been approved through a work chart. They’ve never been budgeted. It’s rampant, and it needs to stop.”
Rep. McCoy further stated, “Right now, there’s a personnel policy in place. You tell our employees that’s the policy they follow. They follow the chain of command.”
Wolfetown Rep. Bo Crowe was in support of the measure and commented, “People are coming to work right now not knowing what’s going on. They are scared right now.”
He implored all tribal leaders to stop bickering and work together. “We’ve gotten out of what we’re here for which is to help people. We’re here to help everyone on the reservation and not sit here and argue back and forth.”
On the measure calling for the investigation, he stated, “If I was being accused of something and somebody wanted to bring in a third party in on me, I wouldn’t mind it. It wouldn’t bother me a bit. I’d let them bring it on. I wouldn’t argue against it. I do agree with Brandon that we’re going to have to start taking up for the tribal employees.”
Chief Lambert stated towards the end of the discussion on Aug. 4, “I get vilified a lot on this stuff, but I can tell you there hasn’t been one person terminated. I’d like to know the name. There’s not been one person transferred outside of what their normal job is. I’ve moved some programs to have better accountability, and it’s working.”
He went on to say, “Look at the streets. Are the streets clean? They weren’t on the Fourth of July so I made a change. A man had that responsibility, and they failed. So yeah, I transferred him, but then he voluntarily chose to resign. There was no termination. That’s been the only one. The employees are safe where they are.”