The Cherokee Nation Tribal Council rejected significant pay raises for elected officials during two votes Monday
In the morning, the council’s Rules Committee voted 9-6 to reject the increases, which included a $350,000 salary for Principal Chief-Elect Chuck Hoskin Jr.; a $233,333 salary for Deputy Chief-Elect Bryan Warner; a 95,000 salary for Tribal Council Speaker Joe Byrd; a $90,000 salary for Deputy Speaker Victoria Vazquez; and a $85,000 salary for all tribal councilors.
During the time that lapsed before the regular council meeting Monday night, some councilors changed their minds, but the majority still voted to deny the salary hikes, 12-4-1.
The result sparked a loud applause from the council chamber, which was full to capacity.
One of the councilors to change his vote was District 14 Councilor Keith Austin, who represents much of Rogers County.
Austin voted against the raises in the morning and in support of them that evening.
“I am conflicted about this issue and my votes show it,” Austin said. “I’m not ashamed of taking my time and being willing to change my views as I work through an issue. In this case I continued to analyze it through the day and into the evening, on top of weeks of carefully study.”
The issue of pay raises came up after the Cherokee Nation Compensation Committee submitted a report in late June, recommending major pay raises for the principal chief, deputy chief, speaker, deputy speaker, and tribal councilors. According to Cherokee Nation law, the recommended increases would have automatically set the salaries, unless legislation to block it was introduced within 30 days of the panel's decision.
“Years before my time on the council, the council entrusted an independent committee to adjust elected official pay. While it is true that we retain the power to reject the citizen commission’s report, we need to remember that the law, passed by this body over 8 years ago, authorized an independent group of citizens to set the pay. The intent was to depoliticize the process,” Austin said.
The legislation to block raises was authored by District 8 Tribal Councilor Shawn Crittenden; District 12 Councilor Dick Lay, who also represents a portion of Rogers County, and District 3 Councilor David Walkingstick. The latter two men ran against Hoskin for principal chief.
Lay said raises for elected officials are common, but called this latest attempt “obscene.”
“If I had become chief, I would have vetoed it and-or done an executive order action to stop it,” Lay said during the Rules meeting.
District 15 Councilor Janees Taylor, representing parts of southern Rogers County, also voted against the pay raises.
“I agree with my constituents that the pay increase, particularly for chief and deputy chief is too much and too fast,” Austin said.
However, he added, “I believe the citizens committee carried out the mandate they were tasked with.”
“The only options we had today were accept or reject, we did not have an option of accepting certain parts or asking the commission to revisit,” Austin said. “By rejecting it, all elected officials will not have any adjustment in compensation, not even cost of living, for four years.”
Austin said the constituents who reached out to him largely agreed that while a pay increase was needed, the committee’s recommendation was too high.
Raises are needed, Austin said, because “The business operations to which we provide oversight are multi-billion dollar operations, and growing. I believe the Cherokee people deserve council representatives willing to treat this as a full time commitment, and I do.”
“I believe some adjustment in pay is warranted. How much and how quickly, is a judgment call,” Austin said. “In the end I favored allowing the work of the citizens committee to stand instead of denying all 17 council members and our chief and deputy chief to go four years without a change in compensation. The majority decided differently and I respect the decision.”