COMMENTARY: Longer terms would mean better governance.

by Oct 29, 2021OPINIONS0 comments



One Feather Editor


I know. I get the immediate negative response when I bring up making Tribal Council seats four years instead of two. There are some in our community that believe that they will remove someone from office quickly if they don’t like their position or positions on community issues. And yet that rarely happens, especially with an incumbent that has had a seat for considerable time. The tendency of our people is to attempt to keep experienced politicians, even if they disagree with the direction we might be going. Maybe even particularly if they don’t like that direction because some of us feel that if an elected official gets us in a bad spot, we want them in there to fix what they messed up.

First, we have some long-serving, dedicated public servants in office today. Because they have been in the seats for a good period of time, they do not have to be “brought up to speed” on projects if they have been reelected over several years. I believe that we should have the best and brightest of our community in those positions of high public service.

I used to tell my brothers and sisters, as we grew up, about elections. I was the oldest, so I got to impart my “wisdom” a lot. I would hear them talk about wanting someone like themselves to be elected to seats of power. And I would respond that I did not. You see, I want someone who is better than me in those seats. I want them to be more experienced, better educated, and have much better judgment than me. How in the world are we going to build a generationally sustainable economy, provide premium services, and grow our Tribe if we are good with the same old thoughts, same ideas, same direction. Some politicians are open-minded, and some are not. Some will accept the will of a constituency that is constantly getting younger and more eclectic.

I once did a tourism speech before a mixed-age group audience, at a time that the millennials were coming into their own. I was explaining how nerve-racking it was to develop a marketing plan for an age group who was so, for the lack of a better term, flitty. I just looked up the definition of “flitty” and got “unstable” and “fluttering”. And boy, that has been my experience with that age group. You could literally spend months developing a marketing strategy and, within the first few months after the presentation, you would be regrouping to figure out the new direction these young folks had decided to migrate.

Besides being unstable and fluttering (to a certain degree), these young people are also some of the brightest, most well-educated among our population. They analyze and think fast, and therefore want their governance to be that way.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that I would like to be able to see some of those bright, fresh minds in the elected leadership of our Tribe. I believe that short terms have stifled our ability to entice some of those young, great minds, and they choose not to run because challenging an incumbent requires deep pockets and a Herculean effort. A certain population of our community are truly set in their ways. Not a bad thing at all, but when it comes to diversity in leadership, it can be a candidate killer.

Our community members have the great benefit of being able to well-educate our population without the personal burden of financing it. The tribal government makes sure that any tribal member can get a great education with minimal worry financially. And, one of the best political training grounds to take elected seats of high office is right here on the Qualla Boundary, the tribal government and its entities. There are hundreds of secretaries, directors, managers, and supervisors who deal with the day-to-day, as well as strategic, operations of the government. Young, creative, innovative minds that are executing the will of our community through our elected officials.

So why don’t more of those who are in tribal government jobs not flocking in to sign up as candidates when the filing opportunity opens? Well, they face quite the challenge, as mentioned earlier, of mounting a campaign to overtake an incumbent.

Elected officials of the Tribe have a built-in public relations mechanism that is hard to beat. Beginning with inauguration day, Chiefs and Council members begin a two-year-long cycle of public exposure. Tribal Council sessions are televised and streamed over the internet, which means that at least two times per month, for a half-day or longer, you hear their names, see their faces, see them governing. Sure, you, as a tribal member, may come in during those sessions, but it is the seats around the “horseshoe” that get the lion’s share of the face time with the community. This doesn’t include the work sessions that are held throughout the month and the multiple replays of the sessions on Channel 28. I am not saying it is a bad thing.  We surely want to be able to see the workings of our government. I am just saying that a candidate outside of the loop might look at that and say, “why bother”. Name recognition is a key part of running for office and gathering votes.

Additionally, the tribal employee and elected officials’ compensation plans are separate. Someone who has invested in their retirement might be looking to start all over if they leave their tribal job and get elected to a seat in Tribal Council or Executive Office. I can imagine it would take some soul-searching to figure out if the sacrifice would be worth the reward. And that one area might keep some of the best and brightest out of elected office.

So, it will be important, regarding entertaining new blood in the elected seats, to make the personal investment more attractive. I understand that there is a new pay structure, but as I read that, it looks like the heavy end of the payroll is in the seats occupied with the longest service. So we are still going to be challenged to get the new candidates in the mix with just payroll compensation.

I believe in making the Tribal Council seats four-year terms.  We would make those seats more attractive to not just incumbents, but to new candidates. It would break the damaging cycle of a year of work and then a year of campaigning. There is an annual window where the Tribal Council is free to legislate then the remaining year is spend balancing the work of the Tribe with the need to make sure they stay in that seat (campaigning). Additionally, the Code puts certain prohibitions on the legislators during an election year. They can’t change any laws that might affect their seats. A four-year term would help alleviate that issue and make terms more productive.

Along with that, our Tribe needs to look at the pension structures and consider having the elected officials and tribal employees under the same umbrella when if comes to pension and retirement. I think these two things would go a long way in helping us govern ourselves better.

There are valuable, learned minds in our Tribal Council, Principal Chief, and Vice Chief seats. We should look to them to help us build out the future, which will include planning for new ideas and fresh faces in the seats of power.