EDITORIAL: Longer terms for Council members
By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
Government-“the political direction and control exercised over the actions of the members, citizens, or inhabitants of communities, societies, and states; direction of the affairs of a state, community, etc.; political administration”. (Dictionary.com)
What can we do to make government work in the best interest of the people? Since there have been organized societies, there has been the question of how best to organize. Government was not created to be a creature for self, but a servant to all.
We are currently governed through the use of a Charter and a municipal code. Our laws are voted into existence by the officials that the population of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians elect. The Charter is the overriding legal, official “last word” in tribal governance in the absence of a constitution. In the Charter, provisions were made for a Principal Chief, Vice Chief and Tribal Council members. The makeup of the Tribal Council consists of two representatives from each of the six recognized tribal communities.
According to our law, the Executive offices of Principal Chief and Vice Chief are elected every four years. The offices of Tribal Council representatives are up for election every two years.
One of the issues with two-year terms, as we have discussed before, is that short terms are very counterproductive. Look at it in terms of a job. In most jobs, you get an annual review. This annual review determines whether you will get a raise or you are on your way to a new job (because the company fires you for poor performance). Generally speaking, as employees, folks do not have goals past the next annual evaluation. Unless strategic planning is part of their job, their thoughts are from one evaluation to the next. And even then, their thoughts will be on self-preservation instead of long term benefit.
Tribal Council members are looking at the political landscape and trying to determine what is best for the people in the long term and trying to make sure that their constituency is pleased with their work from one election to the next. If a well-intended long term project, one that may take three to 10 years to actually see the benefit, has some short term negative effects, a Council person might jeopardize his/her seat by supporting it. Council members are challenged to look beyond their personal well-being when it comes to making the tough decisions. Taking an unpopular stance during that very short two-year term could mean the loss of a seat quickly.
We have a membership of roughly 16,000 people. Of that number, just under 25 percent will vote in an election. So, it very easy to see how a small portion of the community could affect who sits in a community’s Council seat. Sometimes, elections will turn on a single vote. Again, with only two years to convince a small voting constituency that a particular initiative is worth waiting for, the focus may be on keeping a seat instead of what is best for the people.
I think our Tribal Council has done great and important work for our Tribe. I think between the Executive Office and Tribal Council, we have seen many positive steps toward better educated and equipped tribal members, preparing them for the challenges of living in today’s society. We have made great strides in cultural and historic preservation, child and elder care and many municipal benefits.
But, I also think that we may be missing out on some great, long term initiatives because they may require initial sacrifices that cause certain groups in our populous to influence their Council members to vote against. What we want may not always be what we need. And, what we need sometimes doesn’t always feel good at first.
I believe longer, staggered terms for Tribal Council members would give them more freedom to make decisions for the long term health and prosperity of the tribe.
I am not a lawyer or politician by a stretch, but I think it could be done fairly simply. If the law (Charter) were amended to hold the next Council election for the implementation of staggering terms and changing the length of terms, the first election would elect one seat from each community to a two-year term and the other seat to a four-year term. The highest vote-getter would be seated for four years. The second highest would be elected for two years. Two years after the initial election, those with two-year seats would run again to be elected to four-year terms. At that point, elections would take place every two years for half the seats with each Tribal Council representative serving four years.
If we went to this election process, it would cut down on the possibility of voter manipulation and special interest influence. It would also give our lawmakers the time in office and freedom to create legislation based on strategically attractive results instead of short term goals.
One of the things that we, the Cherokee people, may do to make our government work best for us is to create an environment for our elected officials that is conducive to making decisions that benefit the long term health and wealth of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.