EDITORIAL: A free press, government transparency, and the One Feather

by Mar 6, 2017OPINIONS0 comments





Sovereignty is a powerful thing. That is, sovereignty is a powerful thing if you can get it. A quick Google search for the definition of sovereignty calls it “supreme power or authority”, “the authority of a state to govern itself or another state” and “a self-governing state”.

There are various opinions throughout the Tribe as to whether or not we are sovereign. Recent events would tend to call into question the legitimacy of a claim to sovereignty as we have seen more federal law enforcement presence on the Qualla Boundary than many of our people can remember. And, there are calls from both our Executive and Legislative Branches for investigation of inappropriate governance.

There are strong calls from the community to at least explore the possibility of term limits for elected officials (new law already limits the terms of the Principal Chief and Vice Chief) and a defined third branch of government (Judicial). I think community is frustrated with, what they perceive, is a lack of focus on us and our needs.

Both branches of government have enlisted internal and external auditors to attempt to determine if violations of ethics and/or law have occurred. And, both branches of government are engaging lawyers for what looks to be a protracted battle.

As this battle takes shape, little to no information has been released to the public with regard to individual roles and charges, with exception of the redacted release of an Office of Internal Audit investigation alleging violations of human resources policy and charter (as a press release from the Tribal Council’s attorney), and letters from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation alerting the Qualla Housing Authority of scrutiny.

When information is requested, it has been common practice for our officials to remain silent. At any time, the One Feather is willing and ready to publish, subject to Editorial Board guidelines insuring decency and banning personal attacks, the thoughts, opinions and reports of employees, elected officials, community members, and basically anyone in our readership. We have made this publicly known with editorial comment and regular publication of an open letter inviting public officials to provide their input. So far, the only elected official that has taken advantage of our public podium has been the Principal Chief.

Response to the newspaper’s inquiries from government entities is regularly met with silence. In one case, we waited for over a year, during which we made numerous requests for information, before the information was finally received. It has been common practice by some government entities to hold the newspaper at arm’s length when reporting on certain issues.

Our public records laws are such that almost any document that the government decides to not release could be exempted from public scrutiny. There are no less than 17 areas of governmental record that are deemed exempt from public view (Section 132-11 of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians municipal code). Meetings of our public governmental bodies and elected officials are reportedly being held without the knowledge or notification of the public or the press. One community member even commented that more government work gets done at a Braves game that does in our highest chambers of government.

On top of the ambiguity and contradiction in Code regarding public information, the only recourse for forcing delivery of information to an individual or the media is to take the government to tribal court, which hardly ever ends well for an individual, and would be disastrous for a tribal program like the One Feather, not to mention extremely costly.

I have some experience in county, state, and federal governments with regard to open meeting and public information laws, and in those arenas, the code and rule of law is much different and the skew is in favor of the community, press and public access. There is very little that is kept from public view in those government entities, as you may be able to tell from the local and national news reports on their activities.

We continue to be grateful to the Chief, Vice Chief, and Tribal Council for their “hands off” approach with regard to the reporting of the One Feather. While there are times when they fall silent at requests for information, I can honestly say that we have not been forced to publish nor have we been directed not to publish anything from any of our government officials.

It is my opinion that if we, as a community and government, paid more attention to the rights of the people to know and to provide avenues in our tribal law that would allow the One Feather to access and disseminate information, with “on the record” access to our elected officials, many of the ills we are experiencing today would not exist.

Read the following excerpt from an article by Kathy Hill, “The fourth estate is a term that positions the press (newspapers) as a fourth branch of government and one that is important to a functioning democracy. The phrase is attributed to Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797), a British politician, as quoted in Thomas Carlyle’s book, ‘Heros and Hero Worship in History’ (1841):Burke said that there were three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate more important far than they all. In Britain, the three branches (estates) of government referenced Parliament: The House of Lords (the Lords Temporal and the Lords Spiritual – nobles and clergy) and the House of Commons. In modern times, the ‘press’ has been expanded to include all news media, not just newspapers. Why Should You Care? The First Amendment to the Constitution ‘frees’ the press but carries with it a responsibility to be the people’s watchdog.”

The people’s watchdog. Is it possible that, had there been a watchdog over the years to expose governmental mismanagement or lack of management, the investigations of today may have not been a reality? A free press could be a light to shine on and expose the activities of government, who are supposed to be serving the people.

The One Feather, with the help of the Principal Chief, Vice Chief and Tribal Council, has come a long way on the road to being what the community deserves, a true watchdog, alerting you to what is going on in your government. But, because our public information and free press laws are so convoluted, we are sometimes haltered by the silence of our government. Because we are bound by the tribal human resources policy and governmental chain of command, we are always one story or issue away from being censored with a simple directive from someone in the hierarchy of government. With regard to sovereignty, the One Feather only has freedom to speak to you as long as the powers that be allow it to be so. And, that would be okay, if the power was you, the community. But, it is up to the community to grant a free press to itself by ensuring that it holds government accountable for making it so.