By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
Someone once said the very definition of insanity is to continue to do things as we have always done them and expecting change. As a Tribe, we don’t particularly like change. If you watch our government meetings, you will see that we resist change, sometimes at the cost of progress. How many times have you heard a leader say, “Well, that is the way we have always done it,” even though the action might be in a legal gray area or outdated practice?
Another common saying is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The implication is that if a practice is producing positive results, it should be left alone. The problem with that logic is that while something might be working, it may not be operating at peak efficiency. There may be a better way in which a practice or process may be more productive and produce a more significant benefit for the people. While it may work, it is not working to its highest potential.
Some leaders of our Tribe, during their campaigns, said that they thought term limits were a good idea for elected officials. Others said that they preferred not to have them because they felt like as long as the voters were happy with them, they should remain in office. Popularity has never been a good measure for competence and integrity for any position. And when you are talking about the future of a nation, tribal members should be looking for intelligence, experience, and a heart for the community, not someone who makes you feel good for now – the health and wellbeing of the Tribe years and decades, not days and weeks. Fresh ideas and innovation take courage and persistence. Even the most resilient candidate will eventually grow tired and complacent.
I am speaking of no sitting Council member or Executive Office member as I write this. It’s not about people. It is about processes. Many of our current government meetings have at least one comment of “we are doing it this way because, when it has come up in the past, this is how we did it.” Many important decisions in our public meetings have been decided based on precedent. Many leaders, in the absence of the rule of law, will depend on precedent, (“an earlier event or action that is regarded as an example or guide to be considered in subsequent similar circumstances”), to make decisions. The problem with governing via precedent is that, in many cases and as times change, the way we did it before won’t work or may even be contrary to a fair and rational outcome. It is highly unlikely that a situation requiring a resolution will exactly match a case a decade later. Policies and even laws need a periodic review to ensure that they still apply in today’s culture.
A group is now trying to put the finishing touches to a revolutionary project for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. A serious effort to bring forth a document written by the people, for the people, has been in progress for several months and it is based on previous attempts to install a constitution for several years. Within the draft constitution, some changes to the terms of Tribal Council seats are proposed. These changes are critical, in my opinion, to helping resolve ongoing challenges for those representing the people. The document calls for staggered, four-year terms and details how that may take place. There is a lot of meat to this part of the proposed constitution, even getting into how fair compensation for the services of representatives will be achieved and term limits. Kudos to the committee for their forward thinking and courageous approach to the drafting of a governing document.
A priority needs to be placed on resolving outdated and contradictory language in the Cherokee Code. In what was probably an effort to make law that would address a broad range of behavior, law and process were left so ambiguous that it is sometimes challenging to apply. Attempts to change the Code, like removing the Personnel Policy from under the protection of the tribal law, have now weakened tribal employee and tribal member protections. Ordinances are enacted into law with no clear path to enforcement when the law is violated, mainly when the violation is made by an elected or appointed official. For years, we have been talking about cleaning up the Code. Regardless of whether we adopt a new governing document, the Code must be clear in defining the law of the Tribe and the direction of the Tribal Council and Executive Office, without contradiction or ambiguity.
When I started writing this, it was going to be about term limits, something we have talked about for years as a good thing, but for the years that we have discussed it, it hasn’t happened. It is a tool that would benefit the community and those who choose to serve our community by being elected officials. Some, if not all, of our elected leaders, add to the pressures of the demanding jobs of leading our nation, the concern of doing things to get elected every two or four years.
In the case of Tribal Council, a four-year term would reduce the pressure to be in perpetual “campaign mode.” They would be able to help the constituency focus on long-term goals and have time to produce more substantive results, which should be more critical to Cherokee voters than short-term gratification. Much of the first year of a new elected official’s term is spend learning mechanics and protocols. The four-year term would give more time for more productivity. Term limits would provide a mandatory break for both the elected official and the community, allowing other talented community members the opportunity to serve and infusing fresh ideas into the political process. These changes to the terms are not punitive in any way. Consideration of them is not a criticism of the great men and women who have served. It is a way to enhance the powers of the seats for the betterment of the Cherokee community. As public servants, we must focus our efforts on the provision of the best leadership practices, even if the change makes us uncomfortable. That goes for elected leaders and those of us in tribal government and entity management.
As always, the future is up to you. Tribal member, you are the constituency so often talked about in front of the cameras at the Council House. We can let things stay the same and wish things would change, knowing that without doing things differently, we are hopelessly committed to repeating outcomes. Or we can do things differently, taking a bold step forward into the future of our Tribe.