By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
At our next tribal election, you will be making a decision that will affect how we are governed. You might say that we do that every election and to a certain extent, you would be right. Deciding who will sit in the seats of power is a decision that has lasting impact on our community.
This time we will be deciding how we want to select those who may sit in those seats.
There will be referendum questions on the September 2023 ballot that will propose to change the way we elect our Tribal Council seats.
We must educate ourselves, and I hope we all keep an open mind about the idea of changing things if they will improve life and community among the people of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. We must, as a community, discuss the good and bad. We together must weigh the cost of changing and of leaving things as they are.
The items that are currently scheduled to be considered are four-year terms, staggered terms, and term limits for Tribal Council seats. I believe the Constitution Committee is in the process of working with the community to get a finalized draft constitution out so that a referendum question may be put on the ballot for community consideration in that same year.
The current draft constitution also has language to address staggered, extended, and limited terms. So, in effect, there may be two opportunities in the 2023 election to make your voice heard regarding the important question of Tribal Council seat terms.
Some of you understand completely and are ready to decide on this issue one way or the other. Some of you are confused about how proposed changes may work or how they may be beneficial to you and your family. And still others have yet to understand how important the question is or aren’t engaged in the mechanics of tribal government and its impact on day-to-day tribal life.
Our Tribal Council currently runs for office every two years. They do so because the Charter and Governing Document states that the terms of Tribal Council will be two years. So, every two years we put the entirety of our legislative branch and process up for potential change. Some have argued that this could put the Tribe in a leadership crisis should the voters decide to oust all or most of the sitting members of the Council. In addition, new representatives spend nearly their first-year learning “the ropes” of legislative governance. Their second year, along with the rest of the Council, they are limited to certain legislation they may consider because it is “election year”. Tribal Council members spend that second year with the dual purpose of serving their terms and campaigning to hold the seat in the next election.
Ever watch a Tribal Council session and hear a representative talk about “the speed of government”? Part of the lag in the consideration of certain legislation is due to the need to have terms long enough to follow it through from concept to implementation. Projects that stretch from a two-year term to the next face the possibility of sputtering and restarting, sometimes multiple times over what can be decades, support gaining and waning over the years.
The referendum question will ask if you want to change the law to make the term of a representative in Tribal Council to be four years. Four years would allow for Tribal Council to make decisions with the benefit of seeing more of the projects that they start through. New representatives would have time to learn and still be in office to make substantive change before facing elections for their seats.
There are some who feel that the constituency would lose a certain amount of power to vote out what they perceive as ineffective representatives, but the truth is that most Tribal Council members serve four or more years anyway. Incumbents in Tribal Council seats have a pretty good record of getting reelected to multiple two-year terms. We lose power when we become apathetic, regardless of the number of years we set for terms.
Staggered terms would allow the communities that make up our nation to focus on electing one seat at a time. It also provides communities with a way to make clear, decisive choices on leadership. Staggered terms are another safeguard against losing seasoned leadership en masse due to election. Historically, this has occurred. In one election, 10 of the 12 incumbents lost, leaving only two experienced Council members to rebuild the legislative branch.
Staggering the terms of Tribal Council seats has been made to sound very complex, but it is not difficult to implement. Once the people approve the implementation of staggered terms, in the next election following, when the votes are tallied for an individual community, the top vote getter would be installed for four years. The second-place vote getter would be installed for two years. In two years, an election would be held for only those seats that were installed for two years. At that election, the winner of the representative seat would be installed for four years. Then, elections would continue to take place every two years as each half of the Tribal Council whose four-year term was expiring would be up for election. It is a concept that has worked very well throughout the country, including Indian Country, and including our own EBCI Board of Education.
Term limits are probably the most controversial, and most painful, to discuss. In the referendum question, you will be asked if you agree to limit a representative seat to two consecutive terms. That means that a Tribal Council member, if this is implemented, would be able to be seated and then re-elected, but at the end of that second term, they would have to step down and not be eligible for consideration for election for at least one term.
One dictionary definition of cronyism is “the appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority, without proper regard to their qualifications”. The explanation is straight forward. We live in a very tight-knit nation where everybody pretty much knows something about everybody. And of the 16,000-plus members of our Tribe, there are a few whose names are immediately recognizable. And of those few names, Chiefs and Tribal Council members enjoy incredible recognition. And rightly so. They are the people we have elected to lead, to be out in front of the tribe, as both caretakers and role models. If “everybody knows your name”, you have a significant leg up on someone who is an unknown, even if that unknown is better educationally and experientially qualified to carry out the duties of office. Personally, it is hard for me to vote against someone who is a personal friend or even potentially a relative. And I know it has to be for you.
Term limits allow breathing room for both voter and candidate. With only tens of votes separating winner and loser in Tribal Council elections, and only a couple of thousand casting votes (in some cases, hundreds), it just make sense to have a pause button to allow for reflection and fresh ideas to surface. It allows for that relatively unknown candidate who might have a platform and social agenda that could revolutionize tribal life for the better to have a fighting chance in tribal elections. Listen to those representatives who have sat out for a term or two due to losing races in their communities, and then regained their seats. They say that they came back with a better appreciation of their duty to service, and that it enhanced their sense of humility, and made them feel more responsible to do a better job for the people. I believe those are benefits anyone in elected office would appreciate and want. I know I want my representatives to have a solid commitment to service, to be humble, and to be more accountable. Don’t you?
I want to hear your thoughts on the referendum questions that will be voted on in September 2023. We need to talk this through, the pros and the cons, as a community. If you believe we don’t have good leadership, you need to know that things won’t get better unless we, the community, make change. If you believe that we have good leadership, then let’s do what we can to sustain good leadership. That is working together to improve the structure by which our Tribal Council seats get elected.