By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
Four-year terms for our elected officials are the best solutions for the long-term health of our Tribe (please see last week’s commentary), but it should be done in conjunction with two other missing tenants in our law. It is a first step of many toward overhaul of an outdated governing document. Along with longer terms for Tribal Council, we desperately need staggered and limited terms.
Each election cycle, currently every two years, the entirety of your legislative leadership must be subjected to the possibility of losing their seats in Tribal government. Now, some of you cheer that process as a good way to “keep ‘em in line” and “vote ‘em out if they ain’t towing my line”. But the truth is that two-year, all or nothing elections for our legislative branch are not only stifling the growth of the Tribe, but it is also putting government function in a precarious position.
It is better for us to have leadership that is informed and productive; a mixture of old and new; wise and innovative. Surely elders may have fresh ideas, but I can tell you from my personal experience that, while I like to try new things, I am very much a creature of habit and will default to the “tried and true” beliefs in my life. As we mature and grow as a community and people, we will need the input of generations of our people, young and old. Too much of one or the other will limit us and possibly damage us for generations to come.
The idea of staggering terms is not a new concept in governance. From federal to municipal legislative bodies, many stagger their seats of office to maintain a level of consistent government for the people. Even our Cherokee Central School’s Board of Education employs term limits, replacing only one seat per community in each election cycle. Staggered terms for our Tribal Council would ensure a consistency in community leadership in four year stretches of time instead of two years, yet provide the community an option for a change in half of the leadership in that branch every two years. It would reduce any perception of any kind of collusion between sitting community Tribal Council members and heighten the integrity of these offices of public service.
I also believe staggered terms would add depth to the pool of candidates that would run and make it easier for voters to make a clear choice. I think that moving to staggered, limited terms would precipitate a change to the pension laws of our tribe, engaging discussion on the possibility of merging the elected and tribal employee funds, or at least crafting complimentary legislation that would allow a tribal employee to continue accruing their pension years of service if they ran and won an elected seat.
Our public servants in government work would intuitively be the pool we would like to see in the running for elected offices, but they are hamstrung by our policies. For some, it is not advantageous for them to even attempt it until they are at retirement age. We need to change the playing field so that young, talented, educated, and tribally trained candidates can comfortably enter the field of tribal politics.
While providing uncontrolled reelection possibilities might seem like a carrot to hold out to potential candidates for office, it actually has a chilling effect on young or out-of-the-mainstream prospects. As we have talked about before, challenging an incumbent for a seat is a formidable task, particularly for anyone new to the EBCI political scene. Behind an incumbent will be years of the community seeing them in the public eye – Council sessions, ribbon cuttings, groundbreakings, elder meals, and ball games. They are seen meeting and greeting with high officials of other tribal governments, as well as those on the local, state, and federal level. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of that. It is their duty and privilege to serve in those capacities and functions. I am just saying that anyone competing with those “names in bright lights” would be looking at an uphill battle.
Term limits are not a punishment, just as longer terms are not a reward. It is simply proven and good public policy. Two, four-year terms and then a break of at least four years. The obvious example is Cherokee Nation who subscribes to this limitation as well as four-year staggered terms. In their law (1999 Constitution), they affirm “All council members shall be limited to two consecutive elected terms on the council. All council members having served two consecutive terms must sit out one term before seeking any seat on the council.” Other tribes have also adopted term limits for their elected officials.
Some feedback from elected officials has been that they think that the election process itself is the term limiting mechanism. In a community where the population is small and those registered to vote even smaller, one family might be large enough to control the outcome of an election, depending on an unregulated election process (regarding number of terms of office) giving at least the perception that something nefarious might be going on with elections.
True or not, the perception is there. It is not uncommon to hear out in our community, “Why bother voting? It is already decided.” or “They are going to do what they want to do anyway.” Term limits will reverse that perception and encourage voters that there is equality in the power of the vote and added integrity to our elections.
It is my opinion that this referendum regarding the people’s will on four-year terms, staggered terms, and term limits is likely the most important vote of our generation, easily as important as a Chief’s election. The implementation of these measures could set in motion a change from old-style politicking to a new way and meaning of tribal governance.
In “The Memoirs of Robert Youngdeer”, Principal Chief Robert S. Youngdeer spoke to the tribal community’s ongoing challenge with making change in its governance.
“January 19, 1984, I called a reservation wide meeting to be held in the high school auditorium, to discuss and answer questions regarding the proposed tribal constitution with tribal attorney Ben Bridgers, present.
“There were only about a hundred and twenty-five people present to participate in the discussion relating to the proposed constitution. Only five council members attended the constitution meeting.
“I find it discouraging that more tribal members weren’t interested in attending such an important meeting. We had been down that road before with old timers on tribal council. It gave the rightful impression that the old pros were happy with the status quo.”
Chief Youngdeer goes on to talk about a Tribal Council vote to allow a constitution to go to referendum. Long story short, the Council did approve a vote of the people.
“The Eastern Band Constitution would be voted on October 24, 1984. Much to my disbelief, the constitution was defeated by a wide margin. Fewer than half the registered voters participated in the referendum. The defeat of the constitution was because of a lack of interest on the part of tribal members and (blood quantum requirements to hold office).”
I only include Chief Youngdeer’s comments to provide context on the uphill challenge of changing the Charter and eventually the overhaul that is really needed, a new constitution. We tend to have either a mentality of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” or “it’s broke, but I am afraid I will lose what I am getting if we mess with it”. Both mentalities assume either an illusion of a perfectly functioning system or one that might be taking care of them and is so fragile that changes might cause it to not take care of them. But I have never seen adding rights for the people as a negative thing. And I surely do not believe that our system of government, or any other, doesn’t have room for improvement. We, as a people, absolutely must stop letting fearmongering and naysaying dictate our behavior.
I continue to believe that any challenges in governance are not personal but systematic. And even with the limited scope of the Charter, those crafting it imply that the power of governance is with the people of the tribe. If it were not so, they would not have implied tribal elections in the Charter. Our ability to vote and control the fate of the Tribe is the sole civil right mentioned in the Charter. That is why we must get a constitution in place, even if it is one chunk at a time. And overhauling the Tribal Council term structure is a big step in the right direction.