COMMENTARY: Where the rubber meets the road

by Oct 31, 2019OPINIONS





We continue to discuss what level of transparency is appropriate for our government. Clearly, there are things that we, the People, and we, the Government, agree should not be aired in public for the benefit of the Tribe.

But, many other things do not get in front of public eyes that are important to our elected officials’ constituency. I want to address one of those.

As we have discussed before, gossip is not necessarily true or false. And there may be “truth” to both sides of disagreement based on each party’s situation and position, something that we called “situational truth” in the past. What is right about gossip is that the absence of facts does not hinder the production of scandal. Facts are not required to spread rumor and innuendo. In fact, a good, juicy tidbit of truth will be enhanced and manipulated (twisted) to the point of being unrecognizable given the time and imagination of a good gossiper.

I am sure you have heard the old saying that a person can “know just enough to be dangerous”. Another term used for the same notion is the idea of a person going off “half-cocked.” The former refers to someone who makes decisions or judgments or sharing information without all the facts. The latter refers to a person who acts before fully knowing what the correct path or procedure might be. You and I should fully guard against buying into anyone’s story without knowing the facts. Poor decisions will be made if we base our choices on inadequate information.

Credible sources today are in short supply. Seemingly reputable sources in the media have participated in biased and speculative reporting. Major news organizations put their reporters up as analyzers, pundits, and experts in fields where their only education or experience is reporting on a subject or person. For example, “chief political correspondents” are routinely asked to provide opinion by their network anchors, and many times the responses are a combination of fact and the political slant of the reporter. And over the years, we have been conditioned to take for granted that we are getting unbiased information from those reporters. When they conjecture about a person or issue, we assume it is a fact because that is supposed to be their job to convey fact and truth.

We have repeatedly heard the term “transparency” from our leaders and members of the community. Candidates and elected officials promise it. Constituents say they want it and that they are not getting it. I think the disconnect is in the way we interpret “having it”. Some feel that since we have a public information law, that we have all the transparency we need. Oh, you might have to ask in a certain way and wait several days. Still, ultimately, you can get access to most governmental information. Others feel that official communication is slow, cumbersome, and selective. If you know the right person and have the right relationship, the flow of information is more “downstream” and fluid. Say the wrong thing or have the wrong relationship, and the stream turns into molasses.

There needs to be a study and overhaul of the Tribe’s Public Records Act of 2006. Technology has made it unnecessary to have days of wait for any document that is considered in the public domain. The written request provision is archaic, and a precise electronic procedure should be established to allow quick and easy access to any document that is deemed appropriate for public consumption. Ideally, a server should be loaded with all this information, and the citizens of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians should be able to simply log on at a computer terminal and retrieve any public document at any time, instantaneously. The leadership of the Tribe should eliminate the gate-keeping system that exists in human form, which dictates who and when the public gets information. I am not talking about the sensitive material that we all know we must protect. By all means, have those archivists preserve that info. But, please segregate the public information and make it readily available to this community.

We need a working public information officer in every division who is publicly identified and responsible – and has the authority – for speaking and disseminating information to the public. And, there needs to be process and accountability assigned to public information officers who block or who are nonresponsive to the requests of the people and the media. A precise and expedient appeals process for individuals and press that feel the information is being unduly withheld is needed. It is only my opinion. Still, I think that the use of silence in response to a request for information from a government entity or elected official should be an ethics finding. We hold public offices, and one of our duties to the community as tribal divisions and programs is to provide information to the public in a timely fashion.

Many in our community have become apathetic. They feel that nothing will change, so why bother trying. That mindset is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Things will not change if we sit still and refuse to make efforts for change. I think we have a Tribal Council and Executive Committee who will make changes based on the voices they hear in the community. We, as a community, have nothing to lose and everything to gain by addressing this new Tribal Council and Executive Committee with our ideas, concerns, wants, and needs. Now is not the time to be silent. The way our election cycles run, you now have less than a year before your newly-elected officials go on the campaign trail again.

There was some recent discussion in Tribal Council about some in the community who conjectured about elected official travel being “just another vacation” for those officials. Of course, the response to that rumor was that those officials were doing good business on behalf of the Tribe. I do not doubt that our leadership takes trips to negotiate and educate for the good of EBCI. Maybe a little doubt. Ok, I admit, I don’t know for sure.

One official made the offer to reveal the details of their travel on behalf of the Tribe, but no one had ever asked for that information. So, with respect, I am asking. I want to propose a monthly column in the One Feather detailing official travel of our elected officials and appointees, including those serving on the various tribal boards. In the interest of transparency, instead of the One Feather or any individual requesting this information every month, that the report be compiled at the Tribal Operations Program (TOP) with a specified deadline for officials and appointees to submit name, date, destination, and reason for travel for each trip.

Additionally, I would ask that TOP have a reasonable deadline to make that information available to the public and the One Feather. I can’t think of a better way for the government to dispel rumors than to provide the facts. That is what real transparency is about.

As I have stated in the past, I believe the more informed and educated we are, the better we may govern, and the better our society will work. In the absence of facts, people are left to conjecture and gossip. One of the most positive things our Government can do for us is to provide ways to make information readily accessible to the public.