Cherokee Nation Tribal Council rejects recommended pay increases

Senior Reporter
07/17/2019 11:30 AM
TAHLEQUAH – Tribal councilors voted July 15 not to accept the pay increases recommended by the Cherokee Nation Compensation Committee, with critics within and outside the tribal government claiming they were too generous.

Had the measure – introduced by Councilors Shawn Crittenden, David Walkingstick and Dick Lay – been defeated or not added to the agenda, the raises would have taken effect Aug. 14, the start of the new terms for elected officials.

The measure to reject the pay raises passed 12-4. Councilors Crittenden, Walkingstick, Lay, Mary Baker Shaw, E.O. “Junior” Smith, Janees Taylor, Buel Anglen, Harley Buzzard, Joe Byrd, Mike Dobbins, Canaan Duncan and Mike Shambaugh voted in favor, while Councilors Wanda Hatfield, Rex Jordon, Victoria Vazquez and Keith Austin voted to accept the increases. Deputy Chief-elect Bryan Warner abstained.

For the rejection of the raises to be complete, Principal Chief Bill John Baker must sign the measure, or he can leave it on his desk, whereupon it would become effective in 10 days. Or he could wield his veto power, which would require 12 councilors voting to override.

The recommendations consisted of a $350,000 annual salary, up from $190,000, for the principal chief, and annual pay to the deputy chief of $233,333 from $114,000. Councilors were to receive a base salary of $85,000.

Before councilors could vote on the measure, the meeting’s agenda had to be amended. Walkingstick, perhaps anticipating the amendment would fall short of the required 12 votes, said he was “sorry” for what was about to happen and that he “didn’t fight hard enough” to kill the raises.

Lay asked to get the pay raise rejection on the agenda with three other items out of the Community Services Committee, but Deputy Speaker Vazquez asked that they be considered as separate amendments to the agenda.

The pay raise rejection barely passed earlier in the day during the Rules Committee meeting. However, some councilors changed their votes between the Rules Committee and Tribal Council meetings. Warner changed his “no” vote in Rules to an abstention, and Hatfield voted “no” after abstaining in Rules. Smith, Duncan and Shambaugh voted to reject the raises in the Tribal Council meeting after voting for them in Rules. Austin voted for the refusal during Rules, but against it during Council. Taylor was absent during the Rules meeting.

Explaining his decision not to support the salary increases, Crittenden told the Rules Committee “this is not the right time for such a significant, significant pay raise.”

“Lots of good things are going on, but when it comes to services for the people such as housing and health care, I sometimes hear yes when we need help, but too many times I hear no,” he said.

Lay said the Compensation Committee “overstepped quite a bit.”

Buzzard added, “I’m not against raises, and I think it would have been OK (to give) incremental raises, but I also see people who don’t have water, sewer, a roof on their house and a place to sleep.”

Rejection of the pay raises means the principal chief, deputy chief and councilors would not receive pay raises. Unless the law is changed, the Compensation Committee convenes once every four years. The Citizens Committee on Compensation was established by the Compensation for Elected Officials Act of 2003, and enacted on July, 18, 2003. It has been modified multiple times during the past 16 years. The two members of the Compensation Committee appointed by the Council were unanimously approved in December 2018.

Talk of pay spilled over into the July 16 Executive & Finance Committee meeting when Walkingstick introduced measures to give raises to CN employees, stating that the annual 3 percent merit raises were “quarters, 50 cents” for many employees. Two measures were presented for amendment to the agenda, which called for the raises and provided funding.

Byrd said he believed the Executive & Finance Committee was not the appropriate venue to propose employee pay increases.

“When you talk about salaries, you do that through the budget process, not in the E&F meeting,” Byrd said. “That is the way it’s always been. We are not in the budget process yet.”

Walkingstick said the raises would become effective Oct. 1, after the budget process was complete. A figure of $12 million was given to supply employees with raises, and Walkingstick said his second item would fund the extra pay by increasing the dividend from Cherokee Nation Businesses.

A motion was seconded to amend the agenda, and Taylor, the committee chairwoman, called for a vote, but Walkingstick and Crittenden pressed for “discussion.”

“We should not be discussing the particular act at all because it is not on the agenda,” Taylor said.

The vote to amend the agenda failed, drawing six yes votes from Buzzard, Crittenden, Baker Shaw, Walkingstick and Anglen.

Walkingstick then presented his act to fund the raises, and asked for a vote to amend the agenda. Legal counsel advised that any discussion should only be about whether to amend, and not the merits of the proposed act.

A motion and second was received, though Lay suggested that the first vote obviated any action on the funding act.

Attorney General Todd Hembree approached councilors when Crittenden began discussing how the funding measure would work, and told Hembree “I have the floor.”

An exchange among Hembree, Crittenden and Walkingstick then occurred, with Walkingstick repeatedly telling Hembree to sit down.

“The chair has recognized me and your topics have to be germane, they have to be,” Hembree said.

Byrd broke in, stating “the chairlady has asked for (Hembree’s) input,” to which Crittenden replied, “but I was speaking first.” Byrd then told Taylor, “you’re the chairlady, you decide.”

“I actually asked for a vote on whether to amend the agenda on this several minutes ago,” Taylor said. “So I think that is the order. If it makes it to the agenda, then we can talk about it.”

After a protest by Crittenden, Taylor said, “It is my understanding that it is outside the rules of the order to debate anything that is not on the agenda, and this is not on the agenda, so… please do a roll call vote.”

The second motion to amend also failed, with Lay abstaining.
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