By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
The squeaky wheel gets the grease. I have always hated that saying. The euphemism implies that if you ask long enough and loudly enough, eventually, you will get what you need. You see it being taught to children by parents. If you are a people watcher, like me, you have seen parents interacting with their kids in any of various box stores and grocery stores locally. The conversation will involve a child saying something like, “Mommy, buy me this (candy, toy, etc.).” The parent will say, “No, you do not need that,” to which the kid responds, “Please get this for me.” The parent responds with another denial. And the conversation goes back and forth between the child and parent. The discussion gets louder, typically more insistent and excited. And, more likely than not, the conversation will end with the parent saying, “if it shuts you up, give it here, and I will buy it for you.”
Kids see this behavior, try it out, and find out that the odds are that they will get what they want if they are loud, whiny, and persistent.
This is not a commentary on parenting, although a good psychologist could make a good income and practice doing therapy for the above situation. And, I am not above mimicking behavior that brings positive results.
I have come to you in the community with my plea (again) concerning transparency within our government. And maybe some feel that I am the whiny child in the supermarket, dismayed that I am not able to get what I want. If I thought that whining would accomplish providing governmental transparency for our community, I would break out the crying towels.
It is essential to the future of our Tribe that we make public access to communal documents as intuitive and expedient as possible. We try to do it by collecting data and sharing it in your newspaper in print and digital format. I say we try because the government is not always forthcoming when it comes to certain types of information. There is no organized public information officer system. Many of the programs do not have anyone designated to speak with the press, and those that do are not fully briefed on what information is required to be released under law.
For example, I just received, in my snail mail, a very detailed annual report from no, not the Tribe, but the Jackson County Department of Social Services. The Jackson County DSS has no obligation to me or the One Feather to provide their annual report, except for the state law requiring public access to that information. I didn’t request it. I am not even a citizen of Jackson County. Nonetheless, they provided a detailed report including income and expenditure reports and a breakdown of what services were provided by the funding and how many citizens were served.
As a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, wouldn’t you like to have that information for the myriad of programs that your income supports? I would. Once again, I have asked for print or digital copies of those annual reports from the administration. It is something that was presented to Tribal Council, mandated by Code. Yet, it is apparently not something anyone may get their hands on quickly. As we have discussed before, the Qualla Boundary Public Library is supposed to receive a copy of each program’s annual report. Still, in researching their availability and according to their staff, not all the programs are complying with the law. So, we asked the administration and the legislative branch. As of the writing of this commentary, we are still waiting for those annual reports.
You can’t help but be a little offended when an official or representative ignores a request. Even when they eventually get back to you with a response, the reason is that they were just too busy with other people and things to address the request. So, maybe my feelings are a little hurt. When you feel you are a low priority for anyone, it doesn’t take you to your happy place.
But, the reason I am the squeaky wheel isn’t about me being traumatized through being ignored. The reason I keep bringing this up is that if we are not getting information as your authorized media outlet, information that has already been designated as in the public domain, then it is likely that you, as a tribal member, are probably having some challenges getting information too.
There is so much that is not in the public domain. Closed session meetings occur regularly with unclear purpose, oversight, or acknowledged outcome. There are several boards and committees, some appointed by the legislative and executive branches, and others have Council members and Executive members serving on boards and committees. How many of those have announced dates of meeting, agendas communicated to the public, and invite the community to attend?
In our surrounding municipalities, it is required by law that any community-funded boards and committees having meetings are required to notify the public of dates and agendas. They are required to provide public access to the meetings. They do have closed sessions, but the purpose of the closure must be publicly and clearly defined and an attorney representing the people must be present in the closed session to guide the members of the board or committee to ensure that they do not discuss items outside the scope of why they closed the meeting. And a report based on the discussion must be given to the public after the closed session.
Our Tribal Council holds open, televised meetings, like other governments. The live broadcast on cable and live stream on the web are fantastic demonstrations of open government. The Tribal Council, in a past session, decided to make the video feed the only and official record of Tribal Council meetings. Unfortunately, microphones are not always used, even with frequent reminders from the Chair, and portions of the public record are lost when microphones fail to pick up the discussion of an important issue. Yet, this is far more than we get from committees like the Business Committee, who does not report out at all and is an entirely closed meeting.
I know you have heard much of this before. On your behalf, I am trying to squeak loud and long enough to get grease for the Cherokee community. Going to court to get information for you is not a realistic option for the One Feather or any government-owned media outlet. In that respect, we are not unique in Indian Country.
So, I urge you, the Qualla Boundary community and those who are citizens of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to stand behind the right of the people to information and decisions of your elected officials, whether those are made in Council sessions, Executive Committee Cabinet meetings, and the various meetings of governmental boards and committees. Did you know that, in other municipalities, that even administrative emails and impromptu meetings are considered matters of public record? Just sayin’.
In my personal life, I am a bit of a control freak when it comes to driving. You could provide me with the best chauffeur in the world with a perfect driving record, and I would still be uncomfortable with taking a back seat to him or her. I can’t get it out of my head that I am releasing power over my life to someone else. I get the same feeling when I ask about information from my tribal leaders that might impact my livelihood, future, and my family, and the response is silence or apathy.
The Cherokee people are intelligent, rational, and capable of processing information. We can take information, analyze it, and make wise decisions. There are only two reasons I can think of that someone would withhold information from me. One, they think I am too stupid to interpret the data and take appropriate action based on it. Two, they have an agenda, and they fear that if I know too much, it will prevent them from carrying out their agenda. Number one may hurt my feelings and make me rethink my relationship with that someone. Number two will make me believe that I made the wrong choice in letting that person have authority over me.
As a people, we have an obligation to protect our rights to access to information from the government. Until access to information is free-flowing and readily available, all of us must squeak loudly to our Chief, Vice Chief, and Tribal Council members. Without proper access to critical government documents, we are sitting in the back seat, letting someone else drive our future.