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HomeGovernmentON merit-based employee system questioned during Tzi-Zho Session

ON merit-based employee system questioned during Tzi-Zho Session


Benny Polacca

The Third ON Congress again questioned the effectiveness of the merit-based employee system after concerns were raised during the Tzi-Zho Session about the annual employee merit bonus payments, whether it’s being fairly implemented and how does the Nation’s Executive Branch set employee salaries as part of the merit system.

Those topics are now public after several Congressional sessions and committee budget meeting discussions raised the questions and concerns of overspending tribal dollars. The discussions were also fueled by a Sept. 5 email sent to several ON departments from a division leader stating the Executive Branch received information of a cut to employee bonuses, and that salary increases will not be funded. The email and its message went viral and prompted a 30-plus employee protest at the Congressional Chambers the following day.

Concerned employees, who were told to take personal time off if they chose to attend, attended the brief 10 a.m. session and the scheduled emergency Congressional Appropriations Committee meeting held immediately afterward. Several members of Congress immediately responded to the email noting such ideas were never considered for the merit system – mandated by the 2006 Osage Constitution.

The email, sent by Health and Wellness Division Leader Jennifer Oberly, notified the employees of the appropriations committee meeting’s “Discussion of Merit Pay” topic listed on the agenda. Oberly’s email stated: “The topic (of) this meeting is the employee bonus and market salary survey increases.  The information that we have received indicates that they (Congress) are wanting to cut the bonuses down to 1.5% and not to fund the salary increases. I know many of you and your staff are passionate about these subjects and have worked very hard to make this program a success. Any employee who would like to attend this meeting in person is encouraged to do so.”

Oberly said any employee who attends the meeting must take annual leave for the time spent and would be speaking as a “concerned employee/constituent.” Oberly’s message went viral spurring the 30-40 ON government employee turnout with several carrying handwritten protest signs.

During the appropriations committee meeting at different points, Congress members Alice Buffalohead and William “Kugee” Supernaw told the attendees there has been no discussion of discontinuing the merit system. It’s unknown how the information mixup occurred, but it comes following several Congressional requests to the Executive Branch to reduce the budgets to allow for the spending level to remain adequate and to ensure there’s remaining funds for other legislative matters in FY 2014.

In a Sept. 12, Congressional statement, the Legislative Branch described the budget situation and referred back to the Sept. 5 email resulting in the employee picketing situation.

“False information sent via email and social media to and among Osage Nation employees has created an unwanted climate of low morale and job insecurity on the Osage Campus. Last week employees protested at a public meeting of the Congressional Appropriations Committee. These employees expressed their belief this Committee was considering reductions in their 2013 merit bonus compensation and eliminating jobs and the market survey. In fact, the Committee Agenda did not include any such consideration and the Committee informed the protesters they had been misled. 

“Employee protests based on false information divert attention from the real problems facing the Osage Nation. Just prior to the start of the 2013 Tzi-Zho Session, Congress received a proposed 2014 operating budget from the Principal Chief that was about $3.4 million above the flat budget requested by Congress. As a result, the Osage Congress has not been able to consider and prioritize all spending requests. The Congress has requested the Treasurer reduce $1.3 million in proposed spending and that the Legislative Budget Analyst identify areas where current requests exceed prior years’ spending. That is the extent of current Congressional action regarding the 2014 budget.”

Merit market survey salary increase recommendations also questioned

During a Sept. 25 Congressional Appropriations Committee meeting, the committee members considered ONCA 13-86 – an appropriation bill to fund the 2014 fiscal year Merit Market Survey that recommends increases to select ON employee base salaries as a result of a job market survey conducted by the ON Human Resources Department. The market survey was conducted to determine if all employee positions are being paid adequately to remain competitive with other regional employers. Those positions found to be underfunded would be brought up to market based on the survey, therefore getting increases in base pay with the $1.5 million funding those increases in salaries, benefits and indirect costs.

The timing of the bill’s consideration did not sit well with the committee during this budget session where the Congress cut back on spending in other budget areas such as employee travel, equipment purchases and rentals and supplies. The Executive Branch also proposed its own cuts including eliminating some new proposed employee positions or unoccupied existing positions.

During the Sept. 25 committee meeting, some members expressed concern about the Nation’s revenue status and that more information is needed before recommending that the bill be approved by the entire Congress. After discussion, the four committee members present voted to table ONCA 13-85 to a subsequent session. The current appropriation committee members are Congress members John Jech (chairman),Maria Whitehorn, Archie Mason and William “Kugee” Supernaw. Congressman John Maker is also on the committee, but was absent from the meeting.

The following day, the Congress and Osage News were informed that government employees planned to attend the Sept. 26 session after learning the bill was tabled with a total of three attending. Before the day’s session adjourned, the Congressional body was notified by Congressman Geoffrey Standing Bear (sponsor of ONCA 13-86) that a discharge petition for ONCA 13-86 was available for Congress members’ consideration and signature. By the next day, enough signatures were garnered to send the bill to the floor for consideration.

During the Sept. 27 session, the Congress voted 9-1 on the merit market survey bill with one “no” vote from Congresswoman Shannon Edwards and absences from Congressmen John Jech and Daniel Boone.

Original Publish Date: 2013-10-11 00:00:00

Benny Polacca

Title: Senior Reporter


Instagram: @bpolacca

Topic Expertise: Government, Tribal Government, Community

Languages spoken: English, basic knowledge of Spanish and French

Benny Polacca (Hopi/ Havasupai/ Pima/ Tohono O’odham) started working at the Osage News in 2009 as a reporter in Pawhuska, Okla., where he’s covered various stories and events that impact the Osage Nation and Osage people. Those newspaper contributions cover a broad spectrum of topics and issues from tribal government matters to features. As a result, Polacca has gained an immeasurable amount of experience in covering Native American affairs, government issues and features so the Osage readership can be better informed about the tribal current affairs the newspaper covers.

Polacca is part of the Osage News team that was awarded the Native American Journalists Association's Elias Boudinet Free Press Award in 2014 and has won numerous NAJA media awards, as well as awards from the Oklahoma Press Association and SPJ Oklahoma Pro Chapter, for storytelling coverage and photography.

Polacca earned his bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University and also participated in the former American Indian Journalism Institute at the University of South Dakota where he was introduced to the basics of journalism and worked with seasoned journalists there and later at The Forum daily newspaper covering the Fargo, N.D. area where he worked as the weeknight reporter.


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