COMMENTARY: Let’s come to terms.

by Jun 7, 2024OPINIONS0 comments


Tutiyi (Snowbird) and Clyde, N.C.


Maybe it is just me, but I feel like many in leadership at our tribe think term limits are a great idea unless it happens to be the seat of leadership that they are sitting in.

I won’t go over the whole sordid history of tribal members trying to get just the opportunity to vote on the issue of term limits for leadership. For many years, different options for term reform were presented and discussed. Almost to the seat, leadership has been in favor of allowing the community to decide on term reform.

Some leaders balk at actually creating laws to establish term limits, but almost all of them say that they are in favor of providing a vehicle, like a referendum question, so that the people would be able to say what they would like to see regarding term limits, along with staggered terms and length of terms. In the most recent attempt to establish term questions for a referendum, on two different occasions, referendum questions were ratified to be on the ballot. The referendum questions sat for two years waiting for a tribal election cycle in which the leadership felt the questions would most likely be seen and voted upon. These questions were slated for a vote by the people and the Election Board sent out information to the voters to expect them on the ballot. And then, at the eleventh hour, the leadership summarily wrote a resolution to kill those questions and remove them from the ballot.

So, when you hear that your leadership wants you to have a say in issues like this, you have to take that with a grain of salt. As someone is famous for saying, “Actions speak louder than words.”

I heard the voices before the attempt to secure a vote of the people on this issue. They would basically say that the voting process itself was effectively a term-limit process. “If my constituents don’t think I am doing a good job, they will limit my term with their votes.” That is the common theme of leaders who do not wish to be subject to term limits.

Some say that a term limit would unnecessarily cause the ousting of experienced leadership. “Unnecessarily” is a subjective, vague assessment. What is necessary to one may not be to someone else and vice versa. For example, the longer a politician stays in office, the more name recognition they get. In a small voter pool like the Qualla Boundary, it can be challenging for young candidates with talent, education, and fresh ideas to overcome the popularity or just the enormous presence of a long-term incumbent.

Look at the federal government for a moment, focusing on the fitness of the incumbent and front-running candidate for President. These candidates, who have been in the public eye for a half-century or more have been able to virtually monopolize the constituent base because of their name recognition and long standing in the national community. And that is in a system with tens of millions of voters. How much more easily can a local incumbent secure an insurmountable vote advantage in an election?

We have talked about the definition of insanity before (doing the same thing over and over expecting change). We continue to hold on to electoral procedures and systems set in place many years ago that are showing signs of faltering and inefficiency, but when it is suggested that we need to change to get perspective and hopefully improve, fearmongering begins.

The excuses range from changing things making it harder for the government to do its work to change could make us lose benefits that we currently enjoy. While we have decided to put a fence around our information with the use of an enrolled member access web portal, we continue to make it challenging for the community to access our data. I haven’t noticed the word “transparency” being used in public meetings lately and it used to be the buzzword.

I don’t know if those term questions we had on the ballot would have passed. But as a tribal member, I do wish that my representatives on the Dinilawigi (Tribal Council) would have felt that I had the ability, and the right, to make that choice. Don’t you? I mean, don’t you get a little offended when someone treats you like you don’t have the sense, the intelligence, to make an informed decision like those needed for terms?

During the June 6 Tribal Council session, in a discussion about the governing documents of the tribal gaming commission, a debate about the inclusion of term limits for board members ensued. Representative Boyd Owle had introduced language for a two-term limit in 2019. In the proposed language changes in 2024, they wanted to remove the term limit language.

Tsisqwhhi (Birdtown) Rep. Owle said, “That term limit thing has been stricken out. Back in December 2019, I was the one who presented Ordinance 63 to give term limits. Once I got in, a lot of the people in my community wanted to make the two casino boards two-term limits then that’s it. So, I did that. Now they want to take it out and I don’t agree with that. I’ve heard Michell Hicks say it several times. We have a lot of talented and smart people on the rez, and I have to agree with that. Nothing against the board there now or previously, but I seriously doubt that we would’ve had some of the board members on this board now because we would have still had the (established) people (continuing to be reappointed). I think changing the board brings new perspectives and opinions, so I would like to see (term limits) left in.”

Aniwodihi (Painttown) Rep. Michael Stamper, speaking against the two-term limit, said, “I would appreciate the continuity of having the ability to keep these vested and experienced board members intact to see that process (master planning including the reintroduction of Bingo) is done well and get to that end goal that we want. The pool of people that we have that have this experience is going to get slimmer every time we go through it. I find it a little bit odd that we are going to put term limits on this board and we have a strong stance on not having term limits on council members. You know, we say it all the time. If our people don’t want us in it, then, the term limit is every two years. They’ll vote us out.”

Two TCGE terms equate to ten years of board service. Kolanvyi (Big Cove) Rep. Richard French, speaking in favor of the limits, stated, “If they are doing a good job in the first place and most of the time we’ve reappointed (several) people. They don’t fall off at the same time. So, you are not going to lose everybody. If you can’t get it done in ten years, you don’t need to be there.”

Tommy Lambert, TCGE Chairperson, stated that the board is not opposed to term limits, but because of the complexity of licensing individuals to serve, the board preferred to depend on the appointment process, which requires executive and legislative branches to concur on appointments to serve as the limiting process.

Aniwodihi Rep. Stamper proffered an alternative language that sounded like the language in the defeated term limit referendum question for tribal council seats. “To seek a middle ground here, I would offer up a solution of no individual can serve more than consecutively on the board. So, they do two terms and have to come off and if they want to replace the following board seat that comes up the year after that, they should have the ability to do so.” He went on to say that after that year if the tribe felt that they were lacking that experience, they could be brought back to serve after that break in service if the government so desired. Ugvwiyuhi (Principal Chief) Hicks supported this concept and added that there might be other modifications that would help break up the real or perceived monopoly concerning appointees.

All this to say, real and perceived ethical issues arise when the only real criterion for service is popularity. For good or bad, the democratic election process is about the person most popular, not necessarily the person most qualified. Thinking logically, does anyone think that out of a population of 333.3 million in the United States, the two frontrunner candidates to be “leader of the free world” are the best mentally and physically qualified to serve in that role? Probably not. It is more about name recognition, personality, and personal popularity. To think that our tribal election process is somehow different would be naïve.

Term limits serve as filters for the process of selecting leadership and help to create a more level playing field to allow, as Tsisqwohi Rep. Owle and Kolanvyi Rep. French said when addressing the TCGE legislation, the fair consideration of “talented and smart people on the rez” who may not be able to compete with the popularity of an incumbent. Term reform would enhance the way tribal government does the business of community service. When a process is logical and beneficial, we should seek to apply it across the board (pardon the pun). The people deserve to be heard through a referendum vote on the issue of term limits for our government.