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Robert McGhee: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office

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Native Nations Institute
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Treasurer of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Robert McGhee shares some of the things that he wished he knew before he first took office. He also discusses how he and his elected leader colleagues have built a team approach to making informed decisions on behalf of their constituents.

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McGhee, Robert. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. October 10, 2012. Presentation.

Robert McGhee:

"Once again, thank you to the Native Nations Institute and to the tribe allowing us to be here this afternoon and to go through this, I think a very interesting subject. As she was speaking, I can hit on a lot of those and say, ‘Okay, I had that written down. I had that written down,' so at least to show we're somehow consistent from tribe to tribe. We are located in a small town. We're the only tribe in the state of...federally recognized tribe in the State of Alabama. We have several other state-recognized tribes in the state that we have a pretty good working relationship with. However, we are a council of nine. Just some background; we are [on] staggered terms. So the good thing and one of the best things I can say about our tribe is that we're staggered and we have the continuity instead of being all elected at once, ours is three people every year come up. So at least we're only, if we're replacing somebody, we're replacing one to three people. We have never once actually even replaced entirely three people during the time that I've been on. I'm on my second term...third term and will be up next June for my [fourth] term.

We're structured as we have a separate economic development authority who, we have Creek Indian Enterprises that takes care of all of our economic development authorities, all of our businesses. And then we have a PCI Gaming authority, which takes care of all of our gaming ventures, and we have them throughout the state and in Florida and working in California and some other places too. We do have one council member who serves on each of those, which it helps so we can know that...you were coming to that trust issue and just saying what is being done at those board levels. Each council member actually serves on one of those entities and we rotate every year. So what it is, is we want to learn about...we don't want to give somebody too much autonomous and too much power where I'm serving on PCI gaming for three years, I'm the only one that really knows what's going on. We ask that everybody rotate a year. So this year I get to be involved in those decisions. Next year it's going to be Catalina [Alvarez] that gets to be involved in those decisions. So it helps us to get a better understanding of what is out there because we did not have that.

So to get back to the things that...when I first got started on council, it was...I worked for the tribe a number of years ago as a social worker out of undergrad. My father served on council, my brother served on council, my great-grandfather was the chief and so I always had an identity that one day I would come back home and serve on the council. However, I went off to graduate school and went and worked in Washington, D.C. and worked for the United States Senate Committee [on Indian Affairs] and worked for the federal government. So I had an understanding of the way D.C. government impacted the tribal governments, but I really did not have an understanding of how local politics impacted our tribal government. And not even...when I say local politics, county commissions and cities, but also just the tribal members themselves. So the hardest part for me was coming back. And I got elected. I worked for a year and I got elected. And we have, we are part-time council members and full-time council members. What I mean is, you have the opportunity to choose if you will be a full-time council member or a part-time council member. There's two of us that are part-time council members. That's me along with actually our general manager of our casino is also a council member and then the other seven are full-time council members. I also handle the government relations part of the tribe.

But the hardest thing was when I came back home and you got elected was the fact that it's really difficult working for your family. You are working...we have 3,000 members and the amount of...you go into these meetings and you're sitting there and you're thinking you're making the best decisions for the tribe and then you have your own cousins and things like say, ‘Well, why did he make...Robbie just stood up and made that decision and he...' without them knowing the facts that were presented. As a social worker, and I got my degree as a master's in social worker, and it was like I always know to look at there's three sides to every story. And the sad part is the general council, and that's to our own fault, sometimes they're not aware of all the sides to the decision that's being made. They only see the one side that's being presented, they don't take the opportunity or we're not providing them the opportunity to learn all of the different discussions that took place.

When we first moved back, we were, I would say probably 10 years ago, 'Type A' development that was up there. We were, I wouldn't call us -- you may know some of our past tribal leaders so I'm not going to -- we were just in a different direction. We had strong leadership; the other council members at that time necessarily did not have a voice. What happened was, when I came back on after working in D.C. and then we encouraged a couple other younger individuals to run for council, that we started not necessarily challenging but we started just saying, ‘Why was that decision made or why are we going this route?' That's not necessarily the way I perceive the law. Because we had...our general council, we set up education funds and we educated our youth and we educate. So they went off and got the education, now they want to come back and serve and there was a gap there. It was a gap between the elders who served on the council and then you had these young bucks and the McGhee boys who were coming back and they were trying to run the tribe and that wasn't true. It was just one of those things of -- as I said before -- you do not know the history that has taken place under your tribal leadership for hundreds of years. You'll never know. The sad part is you will never know. You can sit there and study, you can sit there and look and you can sit there and research. I do not know why that decision was made 10 years ago or 15 years ago, but that was the hardest part. Why did you make that decision 15 years ago? Why did you make that decision 20 years ago? And to get them to answer those when you're coming into new directions. Sometimes those questions are hard to get answered because it's maybe it's one of those things that it was pride, it was we had...you had to get reelected, you had to...to get progress done you had to make certain sacrifices.

But I think as we've gotten, as we've moved forward, I would say that the hardest thing that, I would say a key attribute that I think every council member should have is just humility. I think they should have humility, I think they should have generosity and I think they should have authenticity. I think it's one of...because as you're moving forward to make a decision you have to be authentic, but I think if you can recognize...if you're authentic, then you can recognize someone else's generosity. You can sit around a table now of our nine, and we have leaders who have been on council now for 25 years, there's two of those. The rest of us have been on, I'm the next at nine years and then after that it's six and three. And I think it's taken...what we had to do was come together as a group. We weren't as a group when I first got elected. You still had this...our elders who are on the council who are very strong and very opinionated and they had the right to be. They have already lived this and we were coming in and challenging their decisions, which was not very respectful at that time when I look back. But we were coming in and challenging them and saying, ‘Well, that's not necessarily true,' or ‘I've worked here and I see a different approach,' and that really did separate us a lot when you had these newer people coming onboard against the elders.

But it was one of those things of, ‘Well, how can we work together?' So what we did, after the second year of my serving on council, I asked that, ‘How about we just take a retreat? How about all of us go somewhere? Not at the local, at the casino hotel because that's not getting away. Let's go somewhere else.' And so we went to...the good thing is where we live, we live on the coast so between two beaches an hour away. So we took the council away to the beach for the weekend and we asked...and I asked another thing. I said...because I'm a very, at that time, I was a very challenging individual; passionate is what my tribal leaders called me. So that was the term that was labeled actually at the retreat about Robbie, ‘He is passionate.' So I asked then, I said, ‘Well, for all of us to have a voice at this retreat, we need to bring in somebody from the outside who does not know anything about us. Can we bring in a moderator?' So it's not Robbie taking over a conversation, it's not our elder, the past chairman for 25 years taking over the conversation, who at this time is no longer the chairman but he still had a strong voice or others. And so that was where we started shifting in the right, not in the right direction, but in a new direction.

We sat there, we went through that weekend, we challenged each other, we were able to speak freely to each other about how I feel threatened by you or how you feel threatened by me and we also talked about the micromanaging and how things needed to change. Because at that time we were...the council not...in the past was going in and pretty much just telling directors what to do and that is not the way this government was set up. This government was set up of, ‘We have hired competent people in place as our program directors and we need them to do their jobs.' So we figured, ‘Well, how can we get the full-time council more, not work, but where they feel more involved in the process but yet not going in and micromanaging every department?' So we set up legislative committees. So every council member now, by law, had to, we passed an ordinance that you had, to be a full-time council member, we created several legislative committees and you had to serve on two or more. And then those legislative committees were the ones who actually would work with the administrator or if there were laws that had to be changed or any policies that had to be changed or resolutions that had to be amended, they would go and meet with the directors and of course not just directly to the director.

We made it...we had a plan that you had to go through the administrator or even the chairman's office out of respect to arrange these meetings and that actually was a great move for the tribal council because it...no longer did they feel the need to call up so-and-so in social services, ‘why didn't...why did you turn down the...application?' Because like I said before, there's always two to three sides to every story and when you have a general council member going to a council member, you're only getting one side. And that's the hardest thing for the council member themselves to realize. When a general council member comes to you, you are only hearing one side and the sad part is sometimes you're hearing a truth that may be sometimes flawed. And so what we had to encourage the tribal council members to do was we need to meet with every, get all the parties in a room or ‘Hey, call this...you got this side of the story, now call the director and get their side of the story and let's move forward from there.' I think that as we've done this it's been one of those growing challenges because you still will have individuals who talk in the community. I always think that's amazing but now we've empowered each of our council members through these leadership retreats and through events such as this to also challenge each other but also to challenge a general council member. Meaning if so-and-so is saying so-and-so about another council member, now we stand up for each other. Now we say, ‘Well, why do you think so-and-so made that decision? Well, I know why he's made that decision or why she's made that decision but you're more than welcome to call them to address it.'

We have a lot of open...in the past we didn't have transparency of government. What we did was we decided that from now on everything would be open. You can come in and you can look at financials, you can come in and you can look at every document that you need to look in. However, you can't leave with the documents but you can come in. That's still not perfect. They still want to take the documents but we say, ‘No, you can come in and look at everything.' We have community meetings. We don't have...in our community meetings, if there are any topics that are bothering the tribe, we open it up. We have to sit up there, all nine of us and we have to take hit after hit after hit. We only have one speaker. We don't ask everybody to speak, only if there's a question that's directed to them. I usually draw the short end of the stick because I'm the government relations person so I'm the one that takes a lot of the hits. But it's...you stand up there and you give every council member the voice because that's all they want. Our general council just wants a voice and they want to be heard and that's one of the hardest things was trying to get evolved to the rest of the council, is just taking the opportunity to listen to the general council and be honest with them.

I think the other key is just you tell them, ‘No, we cannot do that. I cannot do that for this family over here because...and this family actually does not represent the 3,000 other members that are here.' Even in a community meeting when I have 10 people speaking to an issue or the council has 10 people speaking to an issue, we let them know at that community meeting that, ‘Okay, there's only 300 people here. There's 3,000 members. So please know that we cannot leave this meeting making a change or an ordinance based upon the 100 that spoke out of the 300 that do not represent the 3,000.' But we will let them know in the newsletter that, ‘Hey, these 100 spoke to this and if you have a different agenda, then you need to contact us. You need to let...because if not, we will be going in this direction.' And that's when you get everybody then speaking. It's like, ‘Well, I wasn't at the meeting.' ‘Well, that's not our fault.' We make sure that we give a pretty amount...a lot of time and effort to go there.

Another thing that the...when you come into it with just the challenge of recognizing political agendas of each one. They have them. We did have several members that used to be employees who were upset. So they ran for council and they got elected. And they did make some changes, which was quite fun. But after you started working with each other and you understand just the political agendas of each one of them, you ask and it's like, ‘Well, that's actually not a bad political agenda. How can we do that together but I need you to support mine.' I didn't know the difficulty would be...it's like I was a politician per se, I was a lobbyist in D.C. also, too, and worked in government there but then moving back, that was a harder political game to play at the local level amongst tribal council members. But one of the things that we started to do was actually ask them at our meetings, private meetings, ‘What are your top 10? What are your top five?' or ‘What did you want to see done in your term?' And if they're not completely truthful, you can look at the newsletter when they wrote their platform for being elected, they're right there. So we can say, ‘Well, you said this, you're going to build an education institution and you do know an education institution costs $2 million. So how do we get that done?' I go, ‘I want to build a new health care facility, that's going to cost $10 million. So how do I get that done?' And it takes the time that we had to prioritize and to go through and say because...and we published these things and the good thing about it is it publishes all of the political agendas. But if they're little things, I encourage you to call. I encourage you to talk to your other council members prior to council meetings. Explain to them what's going on. We don't like anything presented without being discussed. We get very upset if you just throw something on the table. We will not support it. We've been very good about standing strong as a majority to say, ‘We can't support that. This is the first time you've ever talked to us about that and that's not necessarily something that's good for everybody.'

The last thing that we had done that I thought was...and it took...we went on a leadership retreat actually here in Tucson at Miraval. I don't know if you've ever heard of that. And we went away and we did all these team-building exercises. And we developed a goal and a purpose and we set a value statement. And we got to understand how each person on the council was. When we went to the core, we had emotional environments and we went to the core to each of us as individuals. And we realized that you make all the...so-and-so makes all his decisions based upon family, that was the core. So we knew if he made a decision, we're like, ‘Why did he make that decision?' and if we could relate it to his family, we knew why he related it. And he was honest about it and that was the best thing. At least I knew where you stood, you were always about, ‘I'm focused on my nuclear family, then my larger family,' which is the tribe. But at least we knew where so-and-so was coming from every time he made a decision and that's what helped us. And after that we developed a value statement for the council. And we actually wanted it to be a part of our constitution so we put it on the public. We put it on as a constitutional amendment; it was voted on. And we let the people know that every council member who runs in the future must support this purpose and this value statement for our tribe. And the people supported it; it passed overwhelmingly. And so now, over the last two years, when you have people running for council, we challenge them to say, ‘tell us how you support the purpose of this tribe and do you have the same value statements that we said we would all support?'

It's been an interesting road. I'm up next year. So far no one's come out against me. The sad...I would say one thing that I think every council member needs to be aware of is the role now that social media is though is playing in our lives and how it's becoming very difficult to get a message across that is accurate when you have social media taking over. If you can have one tribal council member who's not happy, you've provided now that individual a voice and you will spend a lot of your time engaging. And it's been a difficult thing to figure out how we can go around this with social media and the Facebook. That's been the difficult task because they're not...they're not getting the whole story. They're airing business that should not be aired and we try to...this is not...the nation sees that now. Not the tribal nation, the nation. And you can never take it back. So now we're trying to have community meetings on explaining the impact of social media. So if you're just now getting elected or anything like that, I would try to start addressing that very quickly because it can be a dangerous avenue. We're in a fight with the county and the county knows more stuff about us because they can...friends of friends and friends of friends and they see the arguments that are taking place and it's very difficult. So I would encourage all of you, if you can figure the best way, if anybody can come up with a model on how to put that genie back in the bottle or to at least use it as a more social activism for the tribe and not against the tribe. Thank you."