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Employees caught in the middle of Chief and Congress feud

The Fifth Osage Nation Congress made changes to the law that governs the Nation’s Human Resources policies for awarding merit bonuses and raises.

Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear sent an email Oct. 18 to all employees detailing benefits that have been taken away by the Congress.

It left the Nation’s employees reeling and many took to Facebook to express their frustrations.  

ONCA 16-100, a bill sponsored by Congresswoman Shannon Edwards and passed during the Tzi-Zho Session that ended earlier this month, repeals and replaces the Nation’s Workforce Pay for Performance Act with the Merit Based Employment System Act (MBESA). The act governs only the Nation’s employees, and not the Osage Casino employees.

The Nation has 486 employees and 256 of those employees claim Osage preference, which does not include those Osages who are enrolled in other tribes, according to the Nation’s Human Resources Department.


According to Standing Bear’s email to employees, the changes include a change from 260 Paid Time Off (PTO) hours to 180, without funding to pay employees for lost PTO hours. Bereavement Leave has been limited to one day, and for immediate family members only (traditional Osage funerals are four days); and administrative leave for those Osage employees who serve on In-Lon-Schka dance committees has been cut (the leave can total up to 48 hours each June). The email also detailed other changes being made.

According to ONCA 16-100, the law does not specify any changes to bereavement leave or the administrative leave for the In-Lon-Schka dance committee members. But, the change from 260 PTO hours to 180 is stated and the Congress did not pass an appropriation bill to fund the loss in PTO hours to the Nation’s employees.

In response to Standing Bear’s email, employees took to Facebook and asked what the process was to remove Edwards from office; accusations were made that the Congress members had lost their sense of Osage culture and some said that Edwards was only in Congress because out-of-state Osages keep voting her back in and that she was against employee raises.

Veto message

According to Standing Bear’s veto message of the bill on Oct. 4, he wrote that the bill was unconstitutional and a distortion of law and likened it to a funhouse mirror that uses the employees as unwitting subjects. The Congress overrode his veto on the same day. The lone no vote for the override was Congressman RJ Walker, who is a former ON director of the Roads Department.

Standing Bear wrote in the veto message, “This is not a Merit bill; it is a compensation control bill.” He further writes that according to Black’s Law Dictionary, a merit system is defined as, “The practice of hiring and promoting employees, esp. government employees, based on their competence rather than political favoritism.”

He contends the intent of the bill is to micromanage the Executive Branch by controlling the adding and subtracting of positions and compensation.

Congress statement

Osage Nation Speaker of the Congress Angela Pratt issued a statement on Oct. 20. She wrote that the Congress was in receipt of Standing Bear’s email to the employees and they “disagree with his interpretation regarding the implementation of employee raises and bonuses.”

“As the Speaker, I am open to revisiting the administrative leave in the future and have been told the same from several of my colleagues, including the Sponsor [Edwards],” Pratt wrote.

The Congress appropriated funding to each branch for base pay adjustments and merit bonuses, to be determined by each branch and administered through the Human Resources Department, she wrote. At the request of the Human Resources Department and in accordance with the law, employees are eligible for base pay adjustments and merit financial recognition, on their anniversary date, she wrote. Employees are eligible for non-financial merit recognition throughout the year.

The Osage Constitution requires the Osage Congress to establish a merit based employment system, she wrote. Congress felt that the Pay for Performance Act did not satisfy that mandate. Congress also wanted to provide transparency in the employment system which is the cornerstone of a constitutional government, she wrote.

“In Chief Standing Bear’s veto message he states that ‘without any rational basis and without consultation with the Human Resource Department and the Executive Branch of the Osage Nation a new law is being proposed in this bill.’ Congress does not agree with this statement,” she wrote. “We do not operate in the dark. The sponsor of the legislation solicited feedback from the Human Resources Director.”

The Osage News emailed HR Director Scott Johnson on Oct. 19 and asked how much input he had in ONCA 16-100. Johnson did not reply by the time this article was published online.

“Our meetings are open, ONCA 16-100 was addressed numerous times during the Tzi-Zho Session and a previous bill on the same subject was first filed in March 2016,” Pratt wrote.  “Principal Chief Standing Bear assigned Rebekah Kirk, Legislative Director, to listen to all Congressional sessions. Assistant Chief Red Corn attended committee meetings and commented on the bill.”

Salaries and compensation

The compensation of Executive Branch employees has been a controversial topic between the two branches, and the topic came to a breaking point during this year’s Tzi-Zho Session. The Congress subpoenaed the information on salaries and job descriptions of the merited employees, and other supporting documentation on various departments and programs that has been provided in the past. Standing Bear offered a compromise but the Congress declined. Standing Bear filed suit in the ON Trial Court over the subpoenas. Legal briefs from both sides are due to the court Dec. 10.

In March of this year, the Osage Nation Supreme Court ruled in Standing Bear vs. Whitehorn that it was unconstitutional for the Congress to reach into Executive Branch functions, such as setting salaries and compensation. Language in ONCA 16-100 suggests the Congress will set salaries and compensation for the Nation’s employees.

Merit Based Employment System Act

ONCA 16-100 is 15 pages long; notable changes include:

–       Paid Time Off, including administrative leave, annual leave, personal leave, and paid time off awarded as part of non-monetary merit recognition shall not exceed 180 hours per calendar year.

–       “Bereavement Leave” means paid time off work for immediate family funeral attendance.

–       “Administrative Leave” means: Paid time off work because of inclement weather conditions, hazardous work conditions, voting, giving blood and other exceptional circumstances such as non-financial merit recognition and committee In-Lon-Schka obligations.

–       Employee positions, job descriptions, base pay, salary ranges, funding source, will be public information within the Human Resources department.

–       Before July 1 of each year all position descriptions, including salary ranges and base pay, within the Executive Branch will be provided to the ON Congress; as well as total payroll for wages and for benefits for all merited positions.

–       Merited positions will be advertised with the Osage News, on the ON website, and local and regional publications for at least 30 days.

–       New positions will be presented and requested by title, job description and salary range to the Osage Congress for authorization and appropriation consideration.

–       Annually and upon appropriation, employees may be eligible for base pay adjustments on their anniversary date of hire to their then current position.

–       The HR department shall develop and publish a chart showing the maximum possible annual base pay adjustment for each merited position which shall not exceed 3 percent of the current base salary for that position.

–       Any position which undergoes a change in job description and subsequent salary adjustment outside the parameters set forth must be reauthorized and appropriated by the ON Congress.

–       A compensation limit. Employee base pay, benefits, merit bonus, special adjustment and the cost of non-monetary recognition shall not exceed 52 percent of the tribal and non-tribal projected revenue.

–       In the event that funds are not available through the Annual Budget or continuing resolution to pay the entire workforce, a furlough may occur. Furloughs must be announced in writing seven days prior to the furlough.

The current list of authorized positions and hourly and annual salary shall be published in the Osage News in August of each year. 


[Correction: Chief Standing Bear’s appointees are not merited employees.]


Shannon Shaw Duty

Original Publish Date: 2016-10-21 00:00:00


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Shannon Shaw Duty
Shannon Shaw Duty is the editor of the Osage News. She is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor's degree in Journalism and a master's degree in Legal Studies, Indigenous Peoples Law from the OU College of Law. She served on the Board of Directors for the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) from 2013-2016 and served as a board member and Chairwoman for the Pawhuska Johnson O’Malley Parent Committee from 2017-2020. She is a Chips Quinn Scholar, a former instructor for the Freedom Forum’s Native American Journalism Career Conference and the Freedom Forum’s American Indian Journalism Institute. She is a former reporter for The Santa Fe New Mexican. She is a 2012 recipient of the Native American 40 Under 40 from the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED). In 2014 she helped lead the Osage News to receive the Elias Boudinot Free Press Award, NAJA’s highest honor. An Osage tribal member, she and her family are from the Grayhorse District. She currently resides in Pawhuska, Okla., with her husband and six children.

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