By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
As we wrap of up another calendar year at the One Feather, we first remind ourselves how grateful we are to be living and working in a community that supports the concept of a free and unfettered press, particularly, tribal press. We could not carry out our mission, as stated in the Cherokee Code, if it were not for a community and governing body that, by and large, supports the Cherokee One Feather.
There have been good and bad days for the Cherokee press this year. While our Tribal Council and Executive Office have verbally supported the idea of transparency in government, everyone seems to have a different definition of the word “transparent”.
I learned something new last week, or at least it hasn’t had my attention in the past year. Tribal Council has the ability to shut off the broadcast of Council sessions (Tribal Council, Budget Council, work sessions, board and committee meetings) without going into closed session. Actually, it was pointed out to me in an email correspondence between the One Feather and the Attorney General’s office back in March that, according to Code section 117-13 (c) “Tribal Council may discuss issues in open session without public broadcast over the Tribal television system or other broadcast system if it determines that prohibiting the broadcast is in the best interest of the Tribe or an individual member of the Tribe.”
In the Dec. 9 Tribal Council session, a resolution (Resolution 97) was introduced by the Attorney General’s office on behalf of Tribal Bingo. In the middle of the English Clerk reading the resolution into the record, the Attorney General interrupted the reading and requested that the video and audio be turned off, but the doors to the chamber “could be left open”. The Council voted, the majority if not all of Council approved taking the discussion off-air (it was hard to see who voted and who did not-and the only way we would know for sure is if the Council provided a vote count).
In my opinion, this is not transparency. This was an emergency resolution that was not on the agenda and had not been presented to the public in the fashion that typically occurs with resolution submission. So, the community did not have any opportunity to read the resolution for themselves via the standard processes that occur prior to a Council session.
Now, here’s where we, the One Feather, were found, as the old saying goes, “with our britches down”. It has been our standard practice to monitor the meetings of Tribal Council via the live stream and cable broadcasts from our offices to provide you with what is going on at these meetings. It is part of our charge and direction in Chapter 75 of the Cherokee Code. We assumed all that was for public consumption would be aired and we could, in turn, provide the public our normal recap of the workings of Council. We knew that, should they go into closed session on any item, we would not be allowed to stay in the chamber anyway.
As I watched this session live and saw what was happening with the blanking of the cameras, I made an inquiry as to what was discussed and requested a copy of the resolution. The response from the Attorney General was immediate and I was promptly given a copy of the resolution. Don’t get me wrong. I do have great respect for our Attorney General, and I know that his job is rarely an easy one. This is not the first issue that we have disagreed on, and I doubt it will be the last. Our disagreement this round regards the existence and use of 117-13 (C).
While it may look innocuous on the surface, it has some pretty nasty implications for the community and the health of our tribal nation.
We already have a very liberal law in Code to permit Tribal Council to operate in closed session to discuss business that we do not want the “outside world” to know. After all, we are an economic driver for the Qualla Boundary, state of North Carolina, and we have far-reaching impact into the region. We have considerable financial and political influence, so we will have more than the occasional business or political opponent sniffing around for opportunities to steal our thunder. I can totally understand why our Attorney General, Tribal Council, and Executive Office, among others, would need a tool in governmental procedures to allow for the work of negotiation and privileged information to take place in a secure, confidential environment.
However, along with the need for confidentiality comes the responsibility to the constituency for transparency. Like it or not, all of us are human. And humans are subject to temptation. And even if we don’t succumb to temptation, we better have documentation or witnesses to verify we are innocent, because the community and constituency are going to infer the worst, especially if bad things happen. It is ethical and proper for our leaders to have arbitrary accountability measures in place when doing the business of the people.
When the remainder of Resolution 97 was read, it was done in the absence of audio and video broadcast. When Resolution 97 was discussed, there were only a few tribal members in the chamber. If anyone had wanted to hear and speak on it, they would have had to suspend what they were doing (if they could, because some of us do not have the luxury of jumping out of a job or a “call any time” babysitter so that we can afford ourselves the opportunity of being involved in these snap proceedings) and make their way to the chamber. When Resolution 97 was voted on, it was done in front of those few who happened to be in the chamber when this emergency resolution was presented to the Tribal Council and, again, out of the view of nearly the entire tribal population. Regardless of the expressed intent to protect the Tribe, should the community allow the government to shield information from the public that doesn’t expressly need to be shielded? What sensitive information would have been leaked or released by turning the cameras back on to allow tribal members to see the vote on Resolution 97? Who motioned and seconded its passage? Who voted for or against? When the cameras were turned back on, the Chairman didn’t mention Resolution 97 at all and went straight to announcements before adjourning.
I have no idea how much our government has spent on the technology that allows the airing of the workings of our government. I will just guess that it was a pretty penny (that means a lot of money, for you younger folks). Council and the Executive Office did not approve spending thousands of dollars of the people’s money with the intent of turning the cameras off. Their intent was to provide their constituency with a window into the process, a way of educating us on the passing of law that affects us, personally.
To be clear, the Attorney General and Tribal Council were perfectly within the law to do what they did. The question is an ethical one. Should there be a provision in law that allows for the termination of the audio and video without going into closed session?
One Feather will change the way it covers these sessions moving forward. When I asked if reporters would have been allowed to remain in the chamber during the discussion of Resolution 97, I was told that the issue had been discussed and they had decided that we would be allowed to remain after the cameras were shut down. Why? If the goal is to suppress the information going out publicly, would it not be counter productive to allow media to remain in the chamber? It is the job of tribal media, namely the One Feather, to disseminate information. In my mind, leaving the One Feather in the chamber is just like leaving the cameras on. The One Feather’s media reach far exceeds that of the tribal livestream and social media.
As we have talked about before, our closed session laws need an overhaul and there needs to be some documentation and arbitration, for the sake of the community and our governmental officials alike. They do not have to be necessarily “public records” but there does need to be attention to protocol in those meetings and some way of settling disputes when stories conflict coming from our government officials. And the community definitely needs to weigh-in on the issue of the audio and video livestreams and recordings during open session of Council meetings. More structure needs to be applied so that the people will be offered the opportunity to come to the chamber if there is an item that will take the session off-air. Tactics of good governance should not include the element of surprise.