No one would have been surprised had Purnell Swett arrived at The Turtle on Monday prepared to go back to work as chairman of the Lumbee Tribal Council, but he didn’t, and although the future is perpetually uncertain, the swearing in of Sharon Hunt to that position presents a huge opportunity for the tribal government — a chance to regain lost trust among its members.
The Tribal Council was nearly unanimous in its decision to accept Swett’s resignation, ignoring a second letter by Swett that suggested the first letter, the one saying he was resigning because of health reasons, was a forgery or that he was just kidding. In doing so, the council signaled it is ready to turn the page, and end the saddest chapter in the government’s 10-year history.
The HUD investigation into allegations that tribal money has been misspent will not evaporate, but the damage can be mitigated if the new leadership is aggressive and forthright in identifying the problems and plucking the weeds. The first step in that direction would be hiring a tribal administrator who is as capable as was Rose Marie Lowry-Townsend, but arrives without the baggage she carried, someone who might return a reporter’s phone call just once in a year.
It would be best if the next administrator didn’t have any established relationships with Hunt or other members of the Tribal Council, although that isn’t as easy as ABC as the best candidates are almost certainly going to swim in some of the same circles as council members.
Tribal members’ perception of their government is plain, so the fixes should be as well. But in case there is some mystery, we will explain. Tribal members don’t trust the government, believing that high-paying jobs are determined not by qualifications, but by kinship or friendship. They believe that housing money that actually is spent on Sheetrock, paint and housing repairs benefits Lumbees “who know someone.”
We aren’t making those assertions, but merely echoing the complaints that we receive constantly, with very few days of spacing. We will defer to HUD to ferret out the truth, and have confidence that its investigation will end only when there are no more roads to follow.
Hunt works as the assistant to the Lumberton city manager as her day job, so she has seen up-close how good, transparent government works. While there are certainly differences in the two governments, there are philosophies that will work well either place, with honesty and transparency topping the list.
The Lumbee people are deserving of much better than their government has provided them — and a new administration has the opportunity to meet that challenge. It will begin at the top with Hunt — and whoever wins later this year as chairman — but it involves everyone, the council members, and those who work for the government. It’s time to do better.
If that can’t be accomplished, then the only thing that will have changed will have been the faces.