By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
After many years of prioritizing and then putting to the back burner the need for an overhaul of the Cherokee Code, Tribal Council voted last month to assemble a committee to review and “clean up” the Code. This an important and positive step in the move toward a more efficient, effective government for our community. The challenge is that with other important issues, take the initiatives of drafting a constitution and establishing term limits for Tribal Council, have either died or been put into a deep sleep though convoluted committee assignments or working sessions that were promised and never scheduled.
Our tribal government, to use a golfing term, gets in the weeds quite a bit when it comes to cause and effect. Gaps in the Cherokee Code and Charter have caused so much vagueness that our lawmakers are split on what direction to go and our Executive Office basically must freeze certain operations because of Code interpretation, or lack thereof.
Suggestions, like creating term limits for elected officials, should be a high priority for our government. The terms of our Council members should be longer so that they are not in perpetual campaign mode. The terms of our Council members should be staggered so that only one seat per community every two years will be elected. This could be accomplished easily by creating four-year terms for Tribal Council, running the next election with the stipulation that the top two vote-getters would serve with the following term restrictions: the top vote getter in a community would get a four-year term, the second most vote-getter would serve a two-year term. After that election, everyone would serve four-year terms and the stagger would be in place.
This would dramatically change the way we are governed and the way laws are created. Our Tribal Council members do the best that they can, given the current circumstances. It must be challenging, to say the least, to be visionary and focus on five, 10-, and 20-year planning for our Tribe when they don’t know if they will be there year after next. A longer term would give our Council members time to get their minds off short-term band aide repairs to our governmental system and focus on the long-term fixes. We can stop treating symptoms and start focusing on the cure for the ills of our Tribe.
This is a change that needs to be made now. Council has the power to bring term limits, extend terms, and stagger terms, to a vote immediately and I hope they will consider doing so. And, both the current term limits on Executive and the proposed term limits on Council need to be then put out on referendum so that they may be voted in as Charter law and unchangeable by any branch of government.
Another area of reform we need to have addressed as a people is establishing a true judicial branch of government. We continue to say there is a definite need for this, but no action has been taken to move forward. When asked to address this, our leaders say that it is more appropriate to wait for a constitution. You get a similar response when asking about term limits. Again, Tribal Council has the power and authority to make this change for the people now. I understand that it is a complex system and we must pay attention to the details and impact of finally adding that third branch of government, but we are not making any steps publicly towards dealing with this issue and the subject has been on the table for years.
We need to stop having our laws interpreted by those who create and execute them. The stool of democratic government rests on three legs, executive, legislative, and judicial. Work without any one of those legs, and you and the stool fall.
One of the issues that is typically adjudicated in court (in a democratic government) is land disputes. Land disputes usually are issues of lawful interpretation, especially when the legal will and last testament of a tribal member comes in to play. The legislative branch in a democratic government make law. If they are also tasked with interpretation of law, then there is no a sufficient check and balance to the system. And since the law, both Code and Charter, is vague and contradictory in some areas, it is not impossible that one person might receive a verdict from Council one day and another person might get a different verdict the next day with the same set of circumstances.
We must stop getting things partially done. We just had another election, fraught with problems in counting and verification, and, under the terms of the Charter, could be deemed illegal anyway because we have not had a mandatory, valid census for the past several elections and we are well beyond the 10-year requirement for one. There doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency to complete it by anyone, including the community.
At least the tribal census is in some stage of organization and execution. We have had an outstanding enrollment audit, in progress for a decade-plus with no findings, report, or action being made publicly available. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of tribal dollars and hundreds of hours of tribal resources were expended and possibly continue to be exhausted with no product to show for it-no benefit to our Tribe.
The community needs more and better access to records. Travel reports, executive and legislative (and, hopefully, eventually, judicial) activity reports should be a regular feature in the One Feather. We are committed to bringing honest, unbiased reports to the Cherokee community and working on ways to ensure “undue political influence”, as the Code states, does not impact what we bring to you. Unfortunately, some leaders, influencers, and special interest groups tend to favor those media outlets that will allow commentary and editorializing in their reporting, or use social media where they can control the message. While the One Feather uses social media as one way to communicate with you, we still maintain a separation of editorial comments and our reporting of Eastern Band news. We only want to control the message to the extent that we provide you with facts and truth when it comes to news reporting. We hope to continue to do so.
The Tribal Council and Executive Office has a lofty job ahead. While dealing with all the flash fires of daily operations of the tribal government and community, they must push past the weeds to attack the cause of all those fires. Time is short. Some of the law changes must happen outside of an election year, according to Code. So that narrows their time to make effective change to a single year. They will be bombarded with cries from their constituency to focus on the small stuff. Much of the small stuff can resolve itself if positive changes are made to the causes. Our governors and lawmakers should heed a line from that great television and motion picture franchise “Star Trek”. One character must sacrifice himself to save the ship and its crew. In a verbal exchange, this line is read, “The needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few…or the one” …doing the right thing, regardless of the consequences to self.