Opinion

A new Catawba chief

Catawba officials still have not mastered the art of quick ballot counting. Nonetheless, an election was held over the weekend, and the tribe now has its first new chief in nearly 40 years.

Polls for the election closed at 7 p.m. Saturday, but results weren't announced until around 6 a.m. Sunday, with many of the voters, including the new chief, staying up all night to hear the news. Donald Rodgers, 39, was the declared winner, defeating three other candidates to assume the tribe's top post.

Rodgers, an employee for Alliance Credit Counseling in Charlotte, said he would move this month to the reservation from his current home in York. Rodgers also has been programs director for the Catawba Cultural Center for 10 years.

He said soon after learning that he had won the election that he had experienced both the relief of winning and the weight of responsibility. Both emotions probably are warranted.

As Rodgers said during the campaign, the hardest challenge facing the new chief will be to bring the feuding factions -- which he likened to the Hatfields and McCoys -- together as a tribe. Since the tribe won its land dispute with the federal government in 1993, it has split largely into two groups, one siding with the old guard represented by departing Chief Gilbert Blue, the other, whose members have been labeled "dissenters," calling for widespread changes in how the tribe is run.

The dissenters have criticized leaders for failing to involve members in tribal matters, for holding too few tribal meetings and regular elections, and for failing to create a new tribal constitution that members would approve. Rodgers apparently has been listening; he said one of his first acts as chief would be to hold an open meeting of the general council Aug. 4. He said he wants to hear from all tribal members before moving forward.

During Saturday's election, voters also rejected an updated version of the constitution proposed by former leaders. One of Rodgers' first priorities will be to lead the effort to rewrite a constitution that will be acceptable to a majority of Catawbas.

We hope the new constitution will address many of the complaints expressed by dissenters. For example, the constitution should specify the rules for choosing new leaders and provide for regular elections. It also should guarantee regular public meetings open to members or their chosen representatives to ensure that members have a voice and that their grievances are heard and addressed in a timely manner.

The only way Rodgers and the new leadership team elected Saturday will succeed in uniting the tribe is if they are willing to take the criticism seriously, deal with the issues raised by both sides, make significant changes in the way the tribe is run and make the process open and subject to scrutiny.

We congratulate Rodgers on his win, and wish him and the tribe well in the days ahead. By all rights, this election should usher in a new era for the Catawba Nation.

IN SUMMARY

Newly elected Chief Donald Rodgers has work cut out for him in trying to unite tribe.

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