COMMENTARY: Apparent transparency

by Jul 8, 2019OPINIONS





I was fascinated by the responses of the candidates in the debate series, particularly regarding transparency. To hear the candidates, one would think all is well, and we all have access to all the information we need. Many of them referenced Chapter 132, a.k.a. the Public Records Act of 2006.

Have any of you read the Cherokee Code, specifically the Public Records Act of 2006? Granted, it is something that you probably wouldn’t take on vacation to read poolside, but maybe you would take a gander at it if you needed a document or two. Code and policy manuals are dry reading unless you have a specific need, or you must deal with trying to get information from public officials regularly. When you need it, the Code becomes fascinating material.

I have no issues with government agencies keeping particular material confidential. We all know that there are investigations and personal information that need to remain out of the public eye. The law clearly defines those kinds of things as material that we, the people, have determined to be sensitive and, for our protection, are not made public.

The Public Records Act details parameters for information that may or may not be released to the public. It also describes how you may request information. All the areas of instruction refer to a “written” request and in one part, says that all requests must be accompanied by a signature. Fortunately, some programs recognize that public information requests in this day and age are commonly made by email or some other electronic means and it is not practical or efficient to require a written signature on your request. The days of snail mail and hand-delivery are going by the wayside and add time to getting the needed material.

The government gives itself a 15-day window to address your public information request. The tribal entity may take the 15 days to discuss whether to provide you with the information or to give you the information. Again, it surely looks like during an era of millisecond data transfer that we could streamline the process of determination and execution of data to a shorter turnaround. It shouldn’t take a tribal entity two weeks to provide a service to the public that is as simple as document copying and delivery.

The issues come when you ask for information, and you are met with indifference and silence. Time is valuable, and each person is allotted a specific amount of it. We are all valuable as people. We have value as members of this Tribe. Unfortunately, we don’t value each other in a way that we all feel respected and served. Our job at the One Feather is simple, to collect and distribute information relevant to our membership in the most efficient and accurate way possible. We are the purveyors of news to the public. Tribal entities looking for a place to provide information to the public are welcomed and encouraged to submit that information. Many times, when we request information from leaders and government agencies, they do not respond to our requests in any way. Emails go unanswered, and phone messages do not get returned. On the other hand, those same leaders and government agencies expect an immediate and definitive response from us when they are in need.

When a community member or media outlet is denied access, they have the option of taking the entity to Tribal Court. That’s right. If you are denied information from an entity of the Tribe, your remedy in law is to go to court. For us, that would mean that anytime we were denied knowledge, as a tribal entity, we would have to call our leadership or another tribal entity into court. Much like you, as a reader of the One Feather, the newspaper runs on a tight or austere budget. One thing we are not budgeted for is going to court to obtain public information. I am not sure where the Attorney General’s office would stand on something like this, but I guess that their office could not engage or represent either party due to the inherent conflict of interest. Also, a situation that went that far would very likely make every subsequent request for information assistance an even bigger battle.

To imply that because we televise Tribal Council sessions, we may infer that we have all the public information we need, or that because we have a public information law that we can get any required information that is not privileged, is simply not accurate. We are required to trust those in positions of controlling information when they tell us that a piece of requested information is exempt and not required to be released.

We recently asked for any information from the Cherokee Indian Police Department about a story that was recently in the media concerning the Tribe, a public organization, and tribal members. The police said that it is an ongoing investigation and nothing about it may be released. We made an inquiry of the Tribal Prosecutor’s office, asking for the same information. They gave the same response. You and I must trust that these entities are abiding by the parameters of the Public Records Act. It just seems like we, as tribal members, should have a way of making sure that we are denied for cause, instead of having to take “trust me” for an answer.

To imply that we can get minutes for all committees and boards which represent the Tribe, also take the “trust me” approach to the dissemination of public information. There are several meetings that leadership has that the public is not invited to attend and are not televised. Closed meetings (also termed Executive meetings) are ordinary in both Tribal Council and School Board. Business Committee is an entirely private meeting. Attendance is by invitation only. No reporting or minutes are available for public consumption, even though it is a meeting that the Cherokee Code specifically outlines for the Cherokee One Feather to cover. I have requested a meeting for the One Feather to discuss the progress of the Kituwah LLC for the entire month of June. The administrative assistant is professional and courteous, but so far, the LLC has not allowed us to talk with them. Maybe I should request their minutes.

And yet, when, at the debates, we asked the candidates if they are satisfied with the level of transparency in government, most answered in the affirmative. Many based their answer on the volume of information being shared via meetings, television, and the Internet. We are a big, successful, active Tribe. The amount of increase in data is a result of our success. That does not mean that we are any more transparent. It could mean that even more information is concealed. It is frustrating for everyone involved. Those in leadership necessarily have to maintain a certain level of secrecy that has to be balanced with the right of the people, who are the real management of government, to know.

I don’t know if we should be satisfied with the current level of transparency. There are no right answers as to how to evaluate if those in control of the information are disseminating it with integrity. I do know it is dangerous for us to assume that “what we don’t know won’t hurt us.” Time and time again, that adage has been disproven. In my personal and professional life, I have never had an experience where someone withheld information from me for my good.

I will leave you with this. For a couple of years now, we have been asking the United States Department of Justice to provide any information on the investigations that allegedly occurred regarding the Qualla Housing Authority. I say “allegedly” because every time we ask the DOJ about the inquiries, they respond, “We cannot confirm nor deny that an investigation is or has taken place.” Every time. In one inquiry, I asked the Public Information Officer for the DOJ if they still had the tribal property that they took out of the QHA offices on that fateful day in 2016.

You see, we were there, along with other media outlets, photographing people in FBI jackets, coming in and out of the QHA offices, loading materials into government vehicles. And yet, the DOJ representative had the same response. In my last email to the DOJ representative, I told her that this alleged investigation was still affecting my community, that friends and families were split into factions over the rumors and accusations resulting from these so-called investigations and the lack of fact to give to our people. The community is divided and hurting because of something they “cannot confirm nor deny.”  The DOJ representative’s response? “I know, and I am sorry.” How many negative things are happening to us because we do not require accountability for transparency? Just something to think about when you are contemplating your choices.