By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
How do we know when something really matters to a person? What are the indicators that someone is truly passionate about something? We hear a lot about the “silent majority”. Is that really a thing? Do we really have a community of “take whatever comes along or what the establishment dishes out” dwellers?
We have beat this dead horse till it is now just a greasy spot – the apathetic position many of us take when it comes to our own governance. There are many who believe, some in leadership positions, that we are too absent of mind to be involved in decisions affecting our Tribe. You doubt that? When was the last time you saw an open meeting where a subsequent closed meeting didn’t take place? Government leaders are very protective of their closed sessions. They will tell you that there is information that can’t be shared with the public and it is “for our own good”, because of all the bad people wanting to take our stuff. Fair enough. I will agree that there are certain things that we need to have and hold confidential to protect our assets. But where are the checks and balances in our governing law that protect us from concealment of public information?
I am constantly amazed that meetings of the Board of Education are not attended by the public. Cherokee is a community that professes great care for their children. How and why decisions are made by the board of community members who determine the education that our children get would seem to be an important thing to a community like that. And yet, in now years of in-person coverage of school board meetings, I have yet to see a community member there who wasn’t on the agenda for some school board action. No one comes as a concerned parent or citizen to oversee those who hold the future of the children in their hands. I see plenty of parents and community members at football and basketball games, but the twice-per-month school board meetings see few in attendance. Unlike Tribal Council sessions, these meetings are not televised or livestreamed, so you only see what goes on through review of the minutes or reading the report generated by the One Feather. Please notice that we end every report with a reminder to the community that the Board of Education meetings are open to the public unless they call for closed session during those meetings.
Every so often during the on-record livestream or Cherokee cable broadcast of the Tribal Council sessions, you will hear one of our leaders reference “that off-air meeting we had with (fill in the blank)”. These are meetings that are effectively closed sessions – meetings of Council and Executive that the public cannot attend or see their record. In fact, regarding those closed meetings, I was told by the tribal legal department that no record is kept during those closed-door meetings and it would defeat the purpose of closed meetings to do so.
Candidates during the campaign for Tribal Council were asked if they would make sure that their constituency was informed of non-confidential information shared during closed sessions, as tribal law clearly spells out (Cherokee Code Section 17-45.3.a.13) that our leaders will not withhold materials or information from the public obtained in closed session unless it is deemed private by Chapter 132 guidelines. Since there is no record, public release, or statement made by the Council body after closed sessions, should the public then assume that every word spoken in closed sessions over the past two years have been private and sensitive so that it could not be discussed with the citizenry nor the media? We know that not to be true, as some candidates said that, when they went to community club meetings, they did, in fact, share what they could from those closed sessions. A couple of candidates inferred that it didn’t matter if there was ever a public record of those executive sessions, because after a session concluded, it would only be hours before the content, private or not, was leaked to the public and became an item of gossip in the community. Do you think that happens in our community?
Whenever a controversial issue is in front of our leadership or the community and it winds up in the Council chambers, you can almost guess who will show up to voice their opinions to power. It is usually the same five or 10 that comes to speak when any of these issues arise. Whatever anyone might say about these citizens, at least they step up and defend the privilege of being heard. I say privilege because, even though we speak of the inherent right to speak, that does not exist here on the Qualla Boundary. Our rights are summed up in the Charter, which is our governing document. The Cherokee Code of Ordinances are privileges that our government put in place, and most may be amended or eliminated by a super-majority vote of the Council. Your rights, as we have discussed in previous commentaries, are the vote and a right to census, only one of which is currently lawfully being executed, although without a valid census, I am not sure that the elections are lawful at all, at least according to the Charter.
We have the luxury of open attendance to many of the commission, board, and Council meetings that our government holds. But few of us take advantage of that luxury. Most of us are content to wait until the paper comes out or the gossip mill gets around to telling us what they have done for us, or to us. In other municipalities, even emails between elected officials and between them and their neighboring municipalities are subject to public information laws. One candidate inferred that our public records law (Chapter 132) is one of the best in the land. And yet, there is no provision in 132 for public inspection of emails of those in power. I have requested information and provisions of 132 have been used to say that it gives the right to refuse to release information to the governing body in some cases, and I would be denied information, not because it was necessarily sensitive, but simply because the language of the law gave them leeway to refuse, so they chose not to. I have requested information from leadership and have been told that, as a tribal citizen, I had a right to the information, but as a member of the tribal press, I could not have the information for publication under provisions of 132. These instances, on top of the tactics of ignoring or neglecting emails and texts, and phoning in answers to questions instead of using email or text to avoid leaving a paper trail leads me to believe that you and I have a long way to go regarding transparency in government. These situations also speak to our lack of motivation and urgency to make meaningful change.
The battle to inform the public rages in every community. The Qualla Boundary is no exception. Good governance depends on accountability and accountability must be a public function. When it comes to the public good, we don’t need rhetoric from the governance, nor the community. We need action.