By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
The TERO (Tribal Rights Employment Office) of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is now an independent entity. Within the past month, legislation declaring it so was passed, subsequently vetoed, then passed again with a veto override. Now that the legislative wrangling is over, the TERO staff and Commission are ready to get to work.
Kevin Jackson, TERO Commission chairman, commented, “When we drafted this ordinance change, the biggest thing on the Commission’s mind was transparency. There were certain clauses in the previous law that had exemptions in it, and I’ve heard it many times around that horseshoe (Council Chambers), ‘no one should be exempt from this law’. So, that was one of the big things. We’ve got to be transparent. We’ve got to be accountable, and we’ve got to be able to enforce this law.”
Curtis Wildcatt, TERO compliance officer, said the changes to the TERO ordinance were the culmination of an eight-year process. “The position that we’re put into, through this independence, allows us to apply it a little more thoroughly and gives us a little more options…”
He said there was some confusion as to what the legislation making TERO independent actually accomplished. “I don’t think it was a step backwards or hurtful to any existing business, start-up business, or future business. It only enhances our ability to provide adequately Indian Preference and also provide a fair playing field in regards to Indian Preference.”
Jackson said, “We swore to uphold that law, and that’s our intent to be transparent and accountable. So, being an independent organization only allows for that transparency and accountability. It allows us to dig into the law and fight for the rights of our vendors, our Job Bank participants, and help educate and grow opportunity for our people.”
Mara Nelson, TERO program manager, noted, “This move was made to benefit our enrolled members. So, anything else that is being said is just ludicrous. The other intent behind this is we want a place where our people can go and seek a remedy and have someone listen to their problems with having to worry about political influence. That’s needed, and now we have that and that’s huge.”
One of the ways the TERO program is helping to grow opportunities for EBCI tribal members is through new mentorship and apprenticeship programs and a special program for those in recovery from addiction. Wildcatt said they’re following the lead of other successful TERO programs throughout Indian Country. “They have developmental programs for the workplace. They have construction-industry training…some of the TEROs also do hotel-industry type training where they do a mock-up of a hotel room and train their people how to clean them…”
Trent Winchester, TERO staff, said people in recovery will be able to gain back their confidence and self-esteem through their new programs. “The programs that we’re implementing will get them to start to build that confidence. When you get out there and gain an education, yes you gain knowledge, the main thing you gain is the confidence that you can go out there and perform a task that you were trained to do.”
Jackson commented, “You have some students in high school who are not college-bound. They’re going to go right into the workforce so we’re looking at a pre-apprentice program, maybe working with tribal programs to bring those who aren’t college-bound and begin training them in a certain area so they can be successful.”
He said, in order for those programs to be successful, it’s going to take the support of the tribal government. “It’s going to take support from tribal programs, partnerships with programs and different agencies around the region here to help us grow this thing, and I believe that we’re on the verge of something big, something bigger than all of us. Because, what we’re doing is the true meaning of Gadugi. It’s community.”
The TERO office is also going to begin advocating for something that is in the name of the program.
“We want to fight for the employee rights,” commented Jackson. “We want them to have an independent place to go. That’s transparency. We hear it all the time so it’s time to enforce it. Let’s be accountable. Let’s do this the right way.”
Under the new structure, the TERO Office is considered an independent entity, but patrons might not notice big changes on a day-to-day basis.
Nelson stated, “Work hours are still 7:45am – 4:30pm. We’re not trying to get away from the work structure that’s been set. As far as day-to-day, we’re still going to operate as we normally have.”
Jackson added, “We’ll end up adopting a lot of the tribal policies. We’ll adopt personnel policies, and we’ll continue to operate under that structure. To me, the only thing that will change is we will raise the standard of this office. We will raise the standard of this Commission. We will raise the standard for our vendors. We want to provide quality work.”
One new addition to TERO duties will be the office will now sign off on all EBCI tribal contracts. And, the Office will garner 1.75 percent of any contract over $10,000 to help with budgetary needs. The remainder of the annual budget will, for now, be made up by the Tribe itself.
The TERO Office currently has 65 vendors that are certified in 56 areas. “We did lose a lot due to the scare that a lot of the vendors had that a lot of the work will start being done in-house rather than being contracted out,” said Nelson.
Wildcatt said it is hoped that with higher standards will come an increased respect locally for TERO and its vendors. “TERO companies are judged often, as we all are…one incident with one company that may have happened 10 years ago, someone still has those impressions.”
He added, “Our program not only provides that Indian Preference, but we keep on our companies to operate at a higher level.”
Nelson concluded by saying, “We want to be that TERO that other TEROs are looking at…we’ve really accomplished a lot lately and I’m just so excited for our future.”