EDITORIAL: The good, the bad and the ugly of term limits and staggered terms
By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
Having just finished an election cycle, the tribal membership has decided its leadership for the next two years with regard to Tribal Council and the next four years for the Executive Office of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. These are incredibly important decisions that have been made and, for better or worse, we have elected those who will guide the business and law of the tribe.
During the election, one recurring issue that was of importance to many of our enrolled members is the subject of term limits and/or staggered terms for elected office. Opinions of candidates varied greatly.
On the subject of term limits, there are concerns that we are a small community with an even smaller number of active voters. One race was decided by a single vote. When the voter base is such that a small special interest group or family may sway the outcome of elections, it is critical that measures be in place to prevent cronyism or favoritism in government. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines cronyism as “the unfair practice by a powerful person (such as a politician) of giving jobs and other favors to friends”.
In the history of our tribe, we have had some exceptional leaders and many still serve in elected and public service jobs. Many of our leaders have risen above any suggestion of impropriety and served ethically for many years. There have also been instances of inappropriate behavior, or, at the very least, the perception in the public of corruption and cronyism. It only takes one “corrupt” politician to turn public opinion against what might be a very worthwhile community opportunity. And, in our current election process, it only takes a small group of individuals to create a perception of corruption.
The statement was made by one anti-term limit candidate during the election that he would trust the people to vote him in or out based on his performance and he should not be limited if he is the most popular candidate. If performance were the only criteria that voters used to cast a ballot, then that logic might work. But, voters are human and humans have different moral and ethical standards. Some voters do not always make voting decisions in the best interest of the tribe as whole. And, if a candidate plays on the personal desires of individuals or special interests, then their actions may not be in the best interest of the community or tribe that they serve.
Term limits are steps that can be taken to limit the ability of those in power to manipulate the votes to continue to hold power. A politician is less likely to cater to a particular group and more likely to be ethically in line with the community and tribe. It will also insure that new ideas and different community prospective will be considered by the voters at the end of terms.
With regard to staggered terms, a staggered term system could curtail the possibility of an overly inexperienced Council body slowing legislative work due to a learning curve in processes. As our election process currently stands, the entire Tribal Council could be voted out of office in a single election with every seat filled with a brand new, inexperienced person. We have already heard sitting Council persons talk about the learning curve and how as much as the first year of any new Council representative is devoted to learning governmental processes, which slows the entire body’s ability to legislate.
It would be difficult to initiate staggered terms with a two-year election cycle. With only one year between elections, a staggered term could hurt more than help with all members at some level of learning government function on a continuous basis.
A possible solution would be to increase the Tribal Council seat term to four years. Two seats in a community could first be elected with the top vote-getter receiving a four-year term and the second receiving a two-year term. Then, in subsequent elections, all candidates would be vying for four-year terms as the pattern of staggering the terms would be in place after the first election.
A four-year term for Council members, coupled with term limits, gives the public the best of both worlds; a body that would be infused with fresh minds and ideas on a regular basis and Council members with enough time in office to learn processes and shepherd legislation through to enactment. And, with term limits for all elected officials, the focus is moved to the needs of entire communities and limits the temptation to cater to a narrow portion of a community.
The power to make change lies with the Cherokee people. It is up to us to decide if we are satisfied with the status quo with regard to the election process. If there are things that can be done to increase the accountability of our elected officials and ensure fair, ethical governance, the community should insist on changes to the election process.