EDITORIAL: Giving the people a straight answer
By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
Transparency – giving the community information on things that impacts their lives and their kid’s lives. We have discussed the need for transparency in government, which is being addressed through legislation. The Tribal Council moved on an Ethics Policy and Department. Hopefully, in the near future, a Constitution will further provide public access to government information.
In 2006, the Tribe passed legislation to provide a framework for the release of information to the public and public agencies. Section 132 of the Code defines the process and limitations of public records. One of the challenges of operating an owned-and-operated Tribal newspaper is, as a sub-program of a program of the Commerce Department and an internal tribal agency, ensuring that we are telling the full story. We are bound to an administration and, regardless of any good intent of the Tribe, this gives the impression of potential manipulation.
Don’t misunderstand me, the leadership in the Commerce Division, Executive Office and Tribal Council all have been very neutral toward our efforts to give the public easy access to government information, which was the cornerstone establishing the One Feather. We routinely provide Budget and Tribal Council information, summaries and follow-up on issues discussed in Planning Board and work sessions. We have come a long way from the four-page newsletter with hand-drawn masthead. The One Feather has grown as the Tribe has grown. And, we are grateful for the government and community support that we receive.
We are committed to providing news information free from editorial bias and unfounded commentary. We adhere to a journalist code of ethics, referred to in our codified tribal law, to help ensure our commitment to providing the truth as best we can reveal it. In this “It must be true, I saw it on Facebook” generation, we attempt to stand apart from the mass of those wanting to provide their slant on reality.
But, we are only able to go as far as the law will allow (no Dukes of Hazard pun intended). And, those working for the One Feather have government jobs and report to government officials. Sometimes, just the appearance that someone or something might shine a negative light on a situation or an official causes a chain of command chain reaction. Human nature is for people to try to protect their own.
In trying to report the news, that mentality can cause doors to close and sources to go silent. Really, who in government employ wants to be the one who brings news of an unethical public official into the public view? Whistleblowers’ jobs typically do not have long lifespans. And yet, that is what our code of ethics specifically requires us to do. We must report fairly and equally. If “John Doe”, unemployed tribal member, commits a crime, we post it with all the other people on the arrest report. If “John Doe”, elected official, is arrested, they must be listed just like all the others on that report. And, we don’t conjecture about information we don’t know for sure.
The Code, in some areas (some would say many areas), is contradictory and lacks enforcement elements. In discussions with tribal attorneys concerning the public records language in the Code, I was told ultimately that my only recourse for refusal or lack of response to getting what should be publicly available documents is to take the offending entity to Court – Tribal Court. Since the One Feather is a tribally owned-and-operated program, we would basically be tasked with taking our bosses to court in a courtroom staffed by employees paid by the Tribe.
Since we are a news organization and not a gossip column, we need documentable information before we announce anything to the public. Still, we are better off than outside organizations, as far as getting tribal information goes, most of the time. Since the Tribe is sovereign, it has no obligation to allow outside news organizations access to its meeting minutes and/or financial records.
In other municipalities, all open meetings, minutes, governmental financial records, emails and phone interactions between government officials, etc. are subject to examination by the public, which means available to the public media, at least in North Carolina, which is patterned after federal law. Why do they do that? Because, the people of the state demand that they know what is going on in their government and with their public officials. For some reason, the people of their communities feel that they have a right to know. And in those municipalities, the people’s right to know overrides the government’s desire for confidentiality or secrecy, for example, in the name of protecting us from unknown, unseen adversaries.
It is my hope that the Cherokee people take the new administration’s campaign motto “Putting Cherokee Families First” to heart. I believe it is a fitting, worthwhile goal. In doing that, the Cherokee people must insist that they be in the lead when it comes deciding their futures; all the people, not just a select few. We must have access to information and the government needs to afford as much transparency as possible.