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Cherokee debates term limit referendum language

Campaign signs decorate a roadside in Birdtown during the 2021 Tribal Council election season. Holly Kays photo Campaign signs decorate a roadside in Birdtown during the 2021 Tribal Council election season. Holly Kays photo

In an unusual sequence of events Feb. 3, the Cherokee Tribal Council passed a resolution outlining a set of referendum questions seeking to bring term limits and staggered terms to the body — only to bring it up for reconsideration minutes later and vote unanimously to table it.

“There are just too many questions,” said Yellowhill Rep. David Wolfe, who seconded the move to table. “We’re going to be working on an election ordinance, and this is a part of the election ordinance. I don’t want to get in too big a hurry and our people suffer the consequences of not knowing. How would I go to Yellowhill Community Building and explain this right now? I couldn’t.”

The resolution in question was meant to clarify a previously passed resolution. Introduced by Robert Jumper, a Cherokee County/Snowbird voter who is also editor of the Cherokee One Feather, the resolution passed in October 2021  listed three questions to ask voters, the first being whether Tribal Council terms should be lengthened from two to four years. The second two questions were conditional upon the first — if you agree with Question 1, they said, should terms be staggered so that one representative per township is up for election every two years, and should the number of consecutive Council terms be limited to two. 

“The Board of Elections identified questions about what Tribal Council had passed,” Attorney General Mike McConnell told Tribal Council Feb. 3. “We worked with them, worked with Robert (Jumper) to say as to what was passed, how do we clean that up so it’s a little easier for voters to understand? Tribal Council might decide that, yes, we have more questions about a bigger picture of term limits or something else. But the goal of the Election Board with this was not to bring in new ideas but to try to make what was passed previously just a little easier to manage.”

The new version contains only two questions. The first one asks voters if terms should change from two to four years and convert to a staggered set-up so one seat from each community is up for election every two years. The second question asks whether terms should be limited to eight consecutive years in office, excluding time served as the result of a special election. Unlike the October version, the document specifies that the new, staggered system would start in 2025 and states that the referendum would take place on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023. 

In addition to clarifying some points of fact in the questions themselves, the new version also gets rid of the conditional aspect of the original structure, which could have complicated the 51% turnout requirement for a referendum to change the tribe’s Charter and Governing Document  — as this provision would do. If, for example, the election drew 60% turnout but only half those voters answered yes to the first question, that would leave only a 30% turnout available for the second and third questions. A legal argument could then be made against the validity of those questions’ results. 

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Jumper introduced the new resolution Feb. 3, and Council passed it immediately thereafter with only three members opposed. But the discussion that unfolded following the vote resulted in a move to reconsider the legislation and a unanimous vote to table it. 

Some Council members were concerned that the resolution does not state which of the two community representatives elected in 2025 would serve a four-year term and which would serve the two-year term needed to set up the staggered format. Council members also had questions about the 2016 tribal law  that places term limits on the chief and vice chief offices — the law limits those offices to two consecutive four-year terms but does not state how partial terms, like the one Principal Chief Richard Sneed served following his predecessor’s impeachment , figure into that tally. 

“I think there’s a lot of questions that should be answered before we actually put it out for a question,” said Snowbird/Cherokee County Rep. Adam Wachacha. 

Members also had questions about how the referendum fit into ongoing efforts to create a tribal constitution  and how it pertained to other election law changes  Tribal Council is poised to consider at its March meeting. 

Other members were uncomfortable with imposing term limits at all. 

“What if we have a chairman that is absolutely wonderful, and we want to keep him, but he’s going to have to go out?” said Painttown Rep. Tommye Saunooke. “You see, that concerns me. When you have good leadership, you want to keep the best, I’d say.”

When Sneed came to the podium, he didn’t offer a position on term limits but said he believed the conversion to staggered, four-year terms was the most significant and needed change proposed in the referendum. 

“The staggered part I think is probably the more important piece,” he said. “You could have a complete turnover of Council and lose all historic and institutional knowledge of the Council. That’s pretty dangerous.”

After voting unanimously to table the resolution, Tribal Council is likely to consider a new version in an upcoming meeting. They have plenty of time to finalize the referendum language. The next chief’s election isn’t until September 2023, and Jumper wants to wait until then to hold the referendum so it will have the best chance of achieving the 51% turnout required to enact the results. 

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