By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
When we talk about high government office, whether tribal, national or state, we usually talk about power, authority and privilege. For decades in tribal government, historians and the One Feather have documented the process and progress of those who are the leadership of tribal government. But, as we have discussed before, civil servants are just that…servants. Because of the complexities in organization and execution that make a society function, we elect and hire people to organize and execute for us. The election process is a selection process to determine who will carry out the will of the people.
Whether it is the Tribal Council (legislative branch) or Principal Chief, Vice Chief, Secretaries and all those who are employed under them (executive branch), all are elected or employed to serve you and me. And, even though the Tribal Court system is not a true judicial branch, it functions as such. The employees are tribally-paid and are therefore at your service. Sounds weird doesn’t it? To say that they do not run the show and you, as a tribal member, hold the reigns of accountability, responsibility and power? But, it is the truth. And, we the people of Cherokee, have a lot of work to do.
Just in case you missed it last Thursday, an Office of Government Ethics was created by a vote of the Tribal Council during its July session. Also presented and approved was a revised ethics policy which may lay a foundation for future governing actions and documents, like a Cherokee Constitution. Since at least 1995, there has been a code of conduct for elected officials (Section 117-45 in our municipal code). It even had a defined penalty section for those who violated it. The revisions to the Code modify and clarify some of the ethical considerations, but leave enforcement and penalties to this new office.
The importance of a clear and executable set of standards for elected officials cannot be overestimated. Without those standards and enforcement mechanisms, a seat in tribal government becomes a thing of manipulation by a select few. The power of these offices can be staggering; capable of manipulating the lives of individuals and entire families with the raise of hand or the stroke of a pen. Whether an elected official would tap into that power or not, there is current perception that unless you stay on the “good side” of elected officials, your job, your home and your family could be as risk. And, that is not how it is supposed to be. Not in government. Not in democracies. Not in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Fairness and equality should not be begged for from a position of weakness among the people of the tribe. It should be demanded by the powerful citizenry who are this great nation unto themselves. Not one tribal member should trade the future of the Tribe, your future, for personal temporary gain.
Here is a recent exchange from the July 7 session of our Tribal Council. The subject was the election laws and amendments to be made. Birdtown Rep. Travis Smith was concerned about early voting and criteria for being allowed to early vote and pointed out, “The problem I see with this is some potential vote buying at some time. You know, where you get all these people who haul all these voters”.
Denise Ballard, Chairperson of the Election Board responded, “I think that happens every election. I’m sorry, there is no enforcement in this. I don’t know what we do about it. We have these police officers that we point out some things that happened at Birdtown. I did. Nothing ever…He didn’t even approach the vehicle…so…I don’t know”.
Earlier in the discussion, Big Cove Rep. Teresa McCoy also alluded to vote buying. There was no further discussion on the issue of candidates and elected officials using short term gratification of a constituent to garner votes to become your public servant.
Is this where we want to be as a Tribe, a sovereign nation? I consider my vote a right and privilege to make a positive impact for our Tribe. Don’t you? We are entrusting our future to our elected officials by essentially giving them our “proxy”, to govern on our behalf. We have more “agents of change” in tribal government than there have been in a long time, maybe in the history of the Tribe. If we have politicians who are attempting to buy seats in our government, shouldn’t it be a top priority of our leadership to put measures in place to stop it?
Speaking of ethics, how do you think your selected, elected public servant will govern if he/she is willing to violate law and offer you the price of a few happy meals, bottle of MD 20/20, or a job for your vote?
If you pay attention to the Council sessions and work sessions, you will inevitably hear a program manager, Secretary, Chief or Council Representative allude to conflicts in different sections of our municipal code. This happens when legislation is passed without research being done to see if there is any other existing law that addresses a particular issue within a section or subsection of the Code.
In the Code of Ordinances Section 161-3-B-3, election law states that the minimum time you may reside in a community prior to being eligible to run for a tribal council seat is 90 days. A council representative stated that his community would like to see that changed to one year. The amendment was voted on and passed by the Council. The only issue is that no one checked to see if any other parts of law speak to the issue of electing tribal council members.
The Charter and governing document of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in section 9 states, “In order to run for or serve as Principal Chief, Vice-Chief or Tribal Council member, a candidate must be an enrolled member of the Eastern Band. For the offices of Chief and Vice Chief a candidate must also be at least thirty-five years of age by the date of the election and have resided on Cherokee trust lands continuously for at least two years immediately preceding the date of the election. For the Tribal Council a candidate must be at least eighteen years of age by the date of election and have resided in the township which he is to represent for at least ninety days immediately preceding the date of the election”.
The Code is in great need of overhaul. Not because lawmakers necessarily had any bad intent in the creation of laws, but that many laws were put into effect based on opinion and conditions at a certain time and new laws created that were never researched against existing law. It is unethical to continue to make laws that contradict existing law if the existing law is allowed to stand, whether by commission or omission, the law becomes moot.
Who do you and I hold accountable for these things? Ultimately, we have no choice but to hold ourselves accountable. We decide who sits in the seats of government power, or servitude. The time is now to change the way we look at our government and expectations of leadership. We begin by expecting more from ourselves. Every member of this Tribe has value. Realize your value. After all, we are only 14 months away from our next tribal election. Demand to be treated by your elected officials and public servants as more than just a vote.
If you would like to look at the draft version of the ethics policy and the resolution creating the Office of Government Ethics, go to theonefeather.com and open the Tribal Council agenda, scroll down to items 4 and 5, then click on the attachments. I wholeheartedly commend those community members who served on the Ethics Committee. As you move forward to the executive phase of your plans, our Tribe owes you a debt of thanks for moving us forward to a hopefully bright future for the Tribe.