Cherokee Nation Compensation Committee submits hefty pay raises for elected officials
TAHLEQUAH – Principal Chief-elect Chuck Hoskin Jr. and other Cherokee Nation elected officials could be getting sizable raises when their terms begin Aug. 14, assuming the Tribal Council doesn’t stop or reduce them, which some legislators are calling for.
The Compensation Committee recently recommended to increase the principal chief’s pay by 84 percent, the deputy chief’s pay by 104 percent – a post Tribal Councilor Bryan Warner will assume – and Tribal Council Speaker Joe Byrd’s pay by 26 percent.
Council approval would give Hoskin a $350,000 annual salary. Outgoing Principal Chief Bill John Baker, upon completion of his term, will have received $190,000 for his final year in office. The annual pay for the deputy chief would rise to $233,333 from $114,000.
“This is an independent citizens’ committee created a number of years ago to set these salaries,” Deacon Turner, Compensation Committee chairman, said. “I suppose it is never popular to give elected officials raises, but our vote was unanimous. Given the complexity and growth of the tribe, the pay is not keeping pace. If we don’t stay interesting or competitive, what kind of talent are we going to get?”
Turner said the committee reviewed the compensation of other tribes’ elected officials, finding that the Chickasaw Nation paid its chief roughly $1 million a year. The Choctaw Nation chief was believed to make at least $290,000 a year, while its councilors make $185,000 per year.
Looking beyond tribal and into state institutions, Turner said most Oklahoma regional universities pay their presidents more than $200,000 per year, “and they are less complex than the Cherokee Nation.” Flagship institutions – Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma – approach the complexity of the Cherokee Nation, Turner said, and those schools pay their presidents at least $350,000 per year. He said the pay increases indicate that the Cherokee Nation is “just trying to get competitive” with nearby tribes and institutions.
“These tribes are substantially ahead of the Cherokee Nation in salaries,” Turner said. “With the Cherokee Nation having approximately 370,000 citizens, and you think about the complexity of the government and medical operations, (principal chief) has to be one of the most complex jobs a person could have, and we felt strongly that pay hasn’t kept pace with regional tribes…. The current council pay is far too low in my opinion. I think there are a lot of talented Cherokees out there who don’t run for office because of the pay. They would have to take a pay cut. The impact of low pay is clear because of what we saw when we lost our medical head and our doctors. If we don’t adopt the attitude that we want to attract the best talent, then we put our future growth at risk. If you think of the growth of the tribe in complexity and economic impact, our compensation for elected officials just hasn’t kept up in any way. We’re probably the single most important institution in eastern Oklahoma.”
Under the pay proposal, each councilor would receive $85,000 annually, with Deputy Speaker Victoria Vazquez receiving an additional $5,000, and Speaker Joe Byrd being paid an additional $10,000.
The committee meets every four years to set pay rates for the principal chief, deputy chief, speaker, deputy speaker and tribal councilors for the next term. CN spokeswoman Julie Hubbard said the committee met in February, acquired market analysis data in the spring, then held its final meeting June 30.
“The salary adjustment for Cherokee Nation elected leaders was needed to accomplish a couple of different goals,” Hubbard said. “It reflects cost of living adjustments. Typically our Cherokee Nation employees receive a cost of living increase each Oct. 1, and so this adjustment builds in that increase for our elected leaders as well. It also compensates our top elected officials, who serve the largest federally recognized tribe in the United States, with a pay scale that is more comparable, but still less than what elected leaders from some of our neighboring tribal nations in Oklahoma earn.”
Committee members are Turner of Denver; Lyndon Emberton of Muldrow; Suzanne Gilstrap of Eucha; Teresa Adair of Tulsa; and Curtis Bruehl of Oklahoma City. The principal chief and Tribal Council each appoint two members, and those four choose a fifth member.
The committee’s recommendation four years ago was to increase pay for the chief from $170,680 to $175,000 followed by $5,000 annual increases; deputy chief from $86,897 to $105,000 with $3,000 annual raises; and councilors from $55,334 to $57,000 then $2,000 yearly increases. Tribal Council Speaker Joe Byrd received an additional $12,000 stipend annually.
When the committee formed in 2011, the base pay for the principal chief was $112,444 while the deputy chief earned $57,241. The base pay for councilors was $36,450 with the speaker receiving an additional stipend equal to one-third of the councilors’ base salary. In 2011, the committee recommended elected officials get 11 percent raises annually for the four-year term.
On his Facebook page, re-elected Dist. 8 Tribal Councilor Shawn Crittenden said, “the only way to not go through with the raises is to draft legislation.”
“I contacted the council attorney and she is doing that,” he wrote. “There are too many employees not receiving 35-plus-percent raises, and too many times I hear there is not a pot of money for this or that. I will try to get this on the agenda and vote to leave things the way they are.”
Requests for comment from the Hoskin campaign were not returned as of publication.