The Osage News hosted its 2012 Congressional candidate debates in the Grayhorse Community Building with 26 of the 34 candidates attending to answer questions on topics including the Nation’s government operations, their plans if elected and what improvements need to be made to the government.
Eleven Osage Congressional candidates participated in the Day One debates held May 5 at the Grayhorse Community Building in the Indian Village. A total of 16 candidates were scheduled to participate, but five candidates did not attend, so two of the three scheduled debate groups were combined into one group.
The Osage News staff and fellow Osages sat on a question committee to develop over 20 potential questions for the candidates. Those questions were written on pieces of paper, put into a hopper and were randomly drawn by four independent moderators. Those moderators kept track of the time, read the questions aloud and enforced the debate rules, which included a three-minute limit on answering questions and one minute for rebuttals if a candidate wished to follow-up and elaborate on his or her original answer.
Four volunteers from the League of Women Voters of Metropolitan Tulsa moderated the debates with two people attending each day of the debates to select the questions from a hopper, draw the number order in which the candidates would respond to a question and to keep track of the candidate’s response time.
Debate group one comprised candidates Olivia “Libbi” Gray, Matthew Shunkamolah, Becky Johnson, Joseph Roger Lynn, Candy Thomas and Maria Whitehorn, which received the following three questions.
What is your understanding of the separation of powers, and more specifically your approach to the exercise of Congressional powers?
Lynn said his understanding of the separation of powers “is pretty straightforward, we have a legislative branch which drafts laws, we have an executive branch which carries out those laws … My approach to Congressional powers is to address problems through laws and, when necessary, engage in informative hearings … without a specific problem or issue we’re facing, it would be hard to address that.”
Johnson said her understanding of the separation of powers is “we have a three-branch government – there’s the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch and the Judicial Branch and the Congressional branch, which is legislative, creates laws that are necessary to carry out the requirements of our Constitution and in all matters they should be considering the will of the people because our powers derive from the people as a government and all laws should be for the good of a whole.”
Thomas said “Congress passes laws, makes appropriations and provides oversight to the laws; Executive carries out the laws and administers the day-to-day business of the government and judicial resolves disputes … My approach in the separation of powers is we need to have very defined roles and I think we’re a new government I think we’re in the process of defining those roles, I think as time goes on we’ll be more clearer on those roles.”
Gray said “The separation of powers gives each of our branches very specific functions… the legislative branch makes the laws, the executive branch implements and enforces the laws and the Judicial Branch will interpret those laws if there’s a dispute over the meaning.” With regards to Congress, Gray said its roles include writing laws, appropriating money, which involves reviewing budgets, annual plans and asking questions.
Shunkamolah said the Congressional Branch does appropriate money and pass laws, but the legislative branch in the government world represents the quality of the government which is the people, it represents what they stand for, what they feel the needs are and what are the best things for the Nation.”
Whitehorn acknowledged the basic roles of the three-branch government, adding: “My approach to carrying out Congressional powers would be to listen to the people, to see what the people need for the laws … (Congress) needs to listen to how we can best serve the people … we write law, we appropriate the funds to implement programs once the funds are approves and we have oversight.”
The Osage government offers various social programs for the community at large. Do you feel these programs are helpful to the Osage people?
Thomas said “Yes I think the social programs are important to the Osage people, I got on the Web to look at the various social services that we offer and a lot of them are in protecting the child, children and families … The children are the future of our Nation and we need to be able to provide services from our own people rather than go outside to other services.”
“I think our social programs are very beneficial to our people,” said Gray, “But from time to time I do think that we can evaluate those programs to see exactly how many Osages are using them.” Gray also said the programs should be evaluated to determine if something is missing … “From time-to-time I think we need to reevaluate what we’ve got in order to do a better job, I also think we need to do a better job of letting our people know what services are out there.”
In a rebuttal answer, Gray said quarterly reports would be helpful to Congress to follow-up with the Executive Branch to determine whether any problems are improving.
Of social service programs, Johnson believes “we need to put measurements in place to make sure that they are being used properly and that the neediest people are receiving services. We do have WIC, we have child welfare programs, and crisis assistance programs, but some of those programs don’t have set rules on them that define what is a crisis or who can receive these funds.” She also believes restrictions need to be in place to stay within the annual budget to prevent more spending.
“I think we need better communication on what’s available,” Lynn said of the Nation’s social programs. “Comprehensively you shouldn’t have to search out the Web site and hope for the best in trying to find something that’s buried inside there … We need to be able to communicate better of what we have available, what’s there to help all our Osages. The other thing is we need to measure the impact of these programs,” he said of determining whether all Osages would be served under the programs.
“I think they are there to respectfully serve our Osage people,” Whitehorn responded. “I think their privacy is real important in our service to them. We need to be able to have a survey to evaluate the service that we do provide for our people … then we need to seriously take a look at those and change weak programs however they need to be fixed to help others. Communication is lacking, our Web site is not very user-friendly to be able to find what we need on there … I think we need to work on that as a Nation, as a whole.”
“Obviously the programs are needed and they are helpful, but there’s always room for improvement,” Shunkamolah responded. “Our tribe needs to look at these social services and hire the right people and as Congress people, as legislators, we need to hold the Executive Branch accountable for the people that they hire.” He also agreed communication is a problem, stating that he’s had fellow Osages ask him what services are available from the tribe.
What Osage Nation laws remain unaddressed that you can name as your priorities if you’re elected to the Third Osage Nation Congress?
Shunkamolah said “My biggest problem with legislation that has passed is – laws that are there – is they are not being executed, there’s a lot of laws that have ethics involved… as a student of government I have seen that … We need to attack those types of issues by holding the Executive Branch to the fire by saying: ‘we need your help, we’re willing to work with you, we need to carry these things out.”
Thomas, who is currently on the Nation’s Gaming Enterprise Board, said one problem she’s noticed, is there’s several passed laws that conflict with each other, mostly newer legislation that conflicts with earlier laws. “I would like to see some kind of a legislative review, maybe an independent third party that would come in and evaluate all the laws and see what’s conflicting and what’s conflicting with the constitution and straighten those out.”
“We’re missing a lot of business laws,” said Gray, “We do have a couple of business laws that I actually drafted, the first drafts of those for Congress (the ON Secured Transactions Act and the Osage Limited Liability Company (LLC) Act)… I think we need to sit down at the drawing board and come up with a very comprehensive set of business laws that will allow us to bring more money into the treasury so that we can take care of our people.”
Johnson referred to the 2006 Constitution’s Article 15 which discusses the Nation’s natural resources and minerals management and said “One of the things I would like to see us do is pursue our hunting and fishing rights and one of the big other tribes has worked with the state of Oklahoma so that tribal members receive the ability to freely take both game and fish as long as they have a tribal license to do so.” She added that water rights are also important to the Nation “because as water becomes less available to our bigger cities, they are going to start looking for rights and we need to protect ours before someone takes them.”
Lynn said: “If our executive branch isn’t implementing laws that are being passed by our Congress then there needs to be some kind of penalty in place … To simply choose to ignore a law because you don’t like it or because you’re Chief or you’re the president or whatever your title is, that’s wrong … If they’re not doing their job, we need penalties to keep that from happening … We need something specific that says ‘if you don’t do this, this is what’s going to happen and you’re not going to like it, if you keep not doing it, it’s going to get worse.’”
Whitehorn attended several sessions during the 2012 Hun-Kah Congressional Session where she learned that several current laws in place do not have penalties written into them. “To me, we need to take a long hard look and see which laws need to be implemented or what happens to you when you break the law because it’s not a game, you know, it’s government.”
The debates originally had three groups scheduled each day with the first groups having six candidates and the last two groups having five each. Due to several candidate absences on the first day, the second and third group candidates were combined into one to make up for the shortfalls.
Day One’s scheduled candidates who were absent are: Kathryn Red Corn, Archie Mason, Roscoe Mays, Anthony Shackelford and Jacque Jones.
The revised second group comprised: Berbon Hamilton, Linda LaZelle, Jerri Jean Branstetter, Rose Mary Shaw and Jenny Miller. The first question was:
Can you explain how you will determine whether an issue requires legislative action if elected?
Jerri Jean Branstetter, currently the Congressional Speaker, shared the legislative process and said legislation typically outlines the intent of the law (if passed), whether there is a committee involved and what its role will be “to tell specific individuals what they will do.”
Miller said “sometimes what I believe what we’re doing here is we’re passing legislation that really isn’t necessary … I feel like what we need here is we need to do a lot of research into whether or not this law is going to benefit the people, if we’re wasting our time, and money, and effort before we do it.”
Shaw said a question that should be considered (in passing legislation) is “how does it benefit the people? Number two is ‘is this law or a policy and procedure issue that can be handled by executive and how will it benefit the people?’” Shaw also said a town hall meeting could be held in which the feedback could be beneficial in making a decision on legislation.
Hamilton said, “legislative action would be how critical the law is that would require action… and communication with the people, they will let us know how they feel.” As an example, Hamilton referred to the Osage Casino land-into-trust issue resolved last year, which required Congressional action to authorize the action and any applicable fees.
LaZelle, a former Congressional staffer, discussed the legislative process which includes getting a Congress member to support and sponsor a bill (if the law idea comes from a member of the Osage public), which is then drafted, filed and introduced into a session and faces initial consideration in committee meetings of jurisdiction. “As a legislator, if we find that a piece of legislation is very controversial, we can have a public hearing – that’s where you the Osage people are invited to attend and to hear those comments and guide us through.”
In her rebuttal time, Branstetter added that any member of the public is invited to attend a committee meeting where bills are usually sent for initial review and any amendments once they are introduced.
Miller said in her rebuttal the Nation needs to have its own regulations in enforcing laws.
In her rebuttal, LaZelle said one of the items on her “foundation is to establish a repeal law for those unconstitutional laws that exist right now so you still have an opportunity to come in and participate in the amendment.”
What is your experience working on or with a legislative body and/ or legislative processes?
Miller, who has worked as a paralegal, said she has experience in reading law and also worked at the Oklahoma state Capitol with legislative procedures. “During that time, we did actually write legislation, for the Oklahoma legislature. Some of our bills got passed, some of them went to the floor.” Miller also added she’s been observing the Osage government movements and reading legislation “so I could understand the direction they’re taking us which is a direction that I’m not really comfortable with.”
Before she working for Congress for 4.5 years, LaZelle said she put in 26 years working for the Oklahoma state government and witnessed the legislative process at the Capitol while working for the Department of Corrections. She added she believes the Second and First ON Congressional bodies are two different entities with the First Congress who “set the foundation for how they’re going to do things” and the Second Congress as the one who “took full force and I think the Third Congress are going to be the people that is going to say ‘OK we’ve got the foundation, we’ve got the process going, now let’s involve the people.”
Branstetter, who was elected in 2006 to the First ON Congress and has been Speaker since 2010, recalls setting the foundation for Congress after being elected to the First ON Congress noting it was difficult at times because “at that time we knew nothing … There were personality conflicts (on the First ON Congress), so with the Second ON Congress, they have produced more legislation in the Tzi-Zho Session and the Hun-Kah Session than they have in five years.”
Shaw said she also has worked in Oklahoma state government, sat on finance committees and met with legislators and “they’d want to know where’s the money coming from and we’d answer.” She praised Branstetter for her efforts as Speaker and added that Roberts Rules of Order should be maintained.
Hamilton said he’s sat on several boards and committees where we “hash out all the obstacles we face and sometimes the discussions got pretty heated … we can come to agreement sometimes and sometimes we don’t … I look forward to working with other people on Congress.”
In her rebuttal, Branstetter said the Congress has set up a Roberts Rules of Order training for the new Congress members as an orientation before the first session.
Miller said in her rebuttal she would like to see more use of debate time because if there’s no heated debate, there’s not enough thinking going into the legislation.
LaZelle said she would like to see changes to the fast tracking of bills in Congress and suspension of the rules, which includes waiving the requirement of Congress to read written Executive Branch veto messages aloud to increase transparency for those who want to know why a bill was vetoed.
Which Osage Nation laws do you think need changing?
“We definitely need to make some big big decisions on this Minerals Estate issue,” Miller said. “The reason I am so concerned about it is because, of course for the protection of the shareholders, but let me just say if we are breaking law, and we have these casinos and we’re working for all Osage people, not just shareholders we make some bad bad decisions, they’re going to be illegal.” Miller then added, “The law is the law is the law, you have to abide by it, you cannot ignore it and when you do, you put not only the shareholders interest at risk, you put the non-shareholders interest at risk.”
Branstetter said the Nation’s 2009 motor pool law needs work because there has been discussion on the tribal government vehicle use and whether the vehicles are needed or used for personal use. “I think it demonstrated that they should be set in a parking area and people would go to check vehicles out,” she said of the government vehicles and the law sponsored by former Congresswoman Faren Revard Anderson.
Shaw said she would like to see a law that clarifies the Constitution, which addresses ambiguous laws. She also agreed with LaZelle that the vetoes should be read aloud to keep accountability in check and also because not everyone has computer access to view them online.
Hamilton said the Nation’s Bidding Act should also be improved to give Osage entities and business a chance to bid for projects advertising jobs as a way “to keep the business that we have in with our Osage citizens.”
LaZelle said Osage laws needing changes are those, which infringe on separation of powers and any law that does not uphold the Constitution.
Approximately 60 Osages and their family members attended the Day One debates.
This is the second election year in which the Osage News has hosted election candidate debates. In 2010, the newspaper hosted two-day debates in Pawhuska for those seeking office in the Principal Chief and Congressional races.
To view more photos taken at the May 5-6 debates, visit the Osage News Flickr page. The photo set link is at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/osagenews/sets/72157629653215160/