By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
Our Tribe recently passed an ethics policy. One Tribal Council representative lamented that it was a shame that we feel the need to incorporate language into tribal law that tells elected officials how to act. It is human nature to merge personal ethics with public behavior and opinions on what is good behavior varies with the situation. In a position of governmental authority, a system of checks and balances is critical to ensuring fair treatment of the communities elected officials serve.
For example, there is a robust debate going on in the public and among lawmakers concerning the drug problem on the Qualla Boundary. One school of thought is that drug abuse is an addiction or disease and users are victims. Another school of thought is that those who abuse drugs were free to choose either to take drugs or not, and since drug abuse is an illegal activity, abusers are criminals.
And, the government seems to be at odds with itself over the ethics of how to address the subject of drug abuse. On one hand, laws are being enacted to treat substance abusers as victims who need treatment and second, third and more chances to “rehabilitate”. On the other hand, workers at the Tribe who fail a drug test face a no-tolerance, immediate termination policy if they fail a drug test. No opportunity for explanation is given and no remediation is possible. Tribal law dictates that if the test comes back positive for drugs, you are positively out of a job. One strike and you are out.
Our government has also assessed that drug traffickers are the cause of the disease and are, therefore, criminals. While I agree that drug traffickers are willful participants in a criminal activity and should be arrested, tried and prosecuted, I have questions about the ethics of holding one party in a criminal activity accountable and the other not. Could it not be said that the trafficker has an addition to something and needs help instead of incarceration? Maybe he has a big family and this is the only way he may support it? That might explain the revolving door at the jail (some folks show up on the arrest report weekly and the court report is filled with dismissed cases). And, if we say that he or she had free will to find another legal way to support their kids, then aren’t we ethically bound to say that the drug abuser had the same free will to find another avenue to take care of their needs?
Who can we look to for direction, guidance and wisdom? When you were young, you looked to parents and grandparents who had lived longer, experienced more and learned, sometimes the hard way, the choices for life. When I was young and wanting to experiment with something new in life, my parent and grandparents were often the ones who provided the direction I needed to avoid heartache and destruction in my life. I am sure you have similar life experiences. Maybe it is time to turn to our elders for help.
We are facing some serious challenges in our tribal government. The Tribal Council, Executive Office and Judicial system seem to be at odds with each other. If you listen to the government meetings, every elected official expresses that they hold their positions on issues based on what their constituency tells them and that they are looking out for the best interests of the employees and the community. And yet, many of the decisions end up feeling like they are being made out of personal animosity instead of what is in the best interest of the Tribe.
The approval of an ethics policy was a step in the right direction, but enforcement will be tricky. Without an independent board to assess and recommend action to prosecutors and the courts, regulation will be left to the elected officials themselves or their designate, which will be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as no regulation at all. The Tribal Employment Rights Office (TERO) got legislation, passed through Tribal Council in the August session and awaiting final authorization from the Principal Chief, to be governed by its own board. This new law will somewhat protect the organization from political influence. A degree of separation was needed to provide an assurance to businesses and the community that they will be treated in a fair and ethical manner. Many of our current elected officials campaigned on establishing or continuing high ethical standards, including transparency of intent and action.
Good men and women will always disagree on some issues. As one person said, “It would be a very dull world if we all thought alike.”
But, when it comes to our elected officials and the disagreements become so personal and heated that focus on the needs of the community are lost to personal battles, it is the community that suffers.