By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
It is probably a good time to revisit the many outcries by the One Feather and the community regarding the continued need for an organized office for the distribution of public information and at least an update of the Cherokee Code section dealing with public records.
At one point, some of our legislators imply that our public records law is some of the best in the land. Well, I beg to differ. The legislation gives broad authority to the keepers of governmental information and very little power to the procurers of information (the media and community).
The widening gap between the power of the people and the authority of governance should be concerning to every tribal member. Knowledge is power. If that is so, what is the withholding of knowledge?
Governments as small as the one in Clyde, N.C. routinely provide press releases to the community. These are sent to the community via direct mail and notices in the public media. North Carolina law recognizes the community’s right to knowledge of governmental function. This right is not a carte blanche. The community’s right is limited by the nature of the knowledge. A personnel action or contract negotiation may be held as confidential, to an extent. But neither is there a blank check for the government. They must release any sections of information, even a confidential negotiation, that is not “confidential”. For example, if the government was trying to negotiate terms and pricing for a construction project, the pricing discussions might fall into the category of “confidential” because the community could be negatively impacted by publication of monetary negotiations. But the terms and conditions of the contractual agreement may not be something that would be detrimental to the negotiations on behalf of the community and therefore would be subject to release to the community.
But Cherokee is not Clyde, and our public records law does not mirror that of state government, as many of our laws do. And enforcement is at the discretion of the leadership. Because all of what the tribe does and those who do it are under a broad umbrella clause in the personnel policy. It is a confidentiality statement that implies that all information you obtain from your employer is confidential until our employer tells us it is not. And One Feather is not exempt from this order.
Many times, in the history of coverage on the Qualla Boundary, information requests get repelled due to that one rule of “law”. The Principal Chief is the final say when it comes to the confidentiality of employee knowledge gleaned from what many call “work product”. Many employees will not bother with seeking permission to release information because it is less of a hassle for them and, like many bystanders at a crime scene, would rather not be involved. We all want to know and spread information (and misinformation in many cases), but we don’t want to be accountable for it.
Getting my club out to beat the dead horse once again, I tell you that in the absence of facts, the community is left to the speculation and conjecture of those individuals and entities on or near our Boundary that will get a tidbit of information and stretch it for sensational or dramatic effect and send it down the gossip line (also known as the grapevine). In every tall tale, there is usually a grain of truth. That grain of truth must be there as an anchor for the fantasy that will be built around it.
Our government has no known organized public information office. After numerous urgings from the One Feather (okay, so it has been me), we still have a glut, or maybe a drain clog, when it comes to the parsing of information on the Boundary. And the Public Records law gets thrown around as the magic bullet. “We don’t need a public information office because we have (drum roll please) the Public Records law in Code”. Well, I hate to let the cat out of the bag, but there is zero mention of enforcement (i.e. consequences) of that law. And there are caveats in the Code to allow for denial of information for things like “proprietary information”, “ongoing investigation”, and “personal content”. The arbiter for the release of the information is the organization itself. Then there is that pesky requirement to hold all things confidential if you are a tribal employee. And when tribal employees weigh withholding information, which has generally no repercussions, and sharing information, which could have some pretty severe repercussions, what course do you think they will choose to take?
Media outlets have done some shoddy articles on the tribe in the past. Misrepresenting who and what we are. As recent as the most current editions, fact-checking doesn’t seem to be a thing when it comes to our land and our people. And when this happens, all media takes it on the chin, including the One Feather. That is why we are so careful to attempt to get all the facts we can before we release anything. Yes, other outlets may get the story or break it to you first, but as just mentioned, it also may be grain-of-truth dramatization that causes so much turmoil and hurt in our community. I can only speak for the One Feather in saying that we want you to be as informed and educated about any issue we cover as possible. And that we never intentionally mislead you on any issue. We live and work here. We are part of the community. As you read or see information in other outlets, please keep that in mind. We do not have control over their content, only ours.
Because of the damage that lack of credibility does, you will hear readers say when we try to get information, say on an incident or investigation, that we are only interested in drama or sensational headlines to sell our product. In reality, what we are interested in is free speech, public safety, and the public’s right to know. No individual or entity should be able to hide from view what is, by rights, public information. To allow entities the right to carte blanche deny public access to information flips the paradigm, making them rulers and us the ruled. Our people did not and should not live that way. Government officials, elected and/or on the payroll, are public servants. They serve the public. And laws should serve the public, not the government.
We are a large and diverse community. We engage other governments. We transact business with corporations large and small. We own a multimillion-dollar business and have a multimillion-dollar economy. We have an ancient history and culture. Are we really satisfied with being ostriches, with our heads in the sand? Do we really prefer ignorance, blissfully going along, assuming everything will be okay as long as we don’t hear anything or rock the boat?
I hope that you will join me in continuing to urge our government to establish an office of public information. An office with the ability to be the liaison between the public and government. The office needs to have a manager who can read law concerning communications and be able to discern confidential from lawfully public information. The program needs a team of public information officers who are schooled and skilled in the different department areas of government, the type of information that they hold. They need to be able to quickly respond to incidents and redact the confidential and parse the information out to the media and public. They need to be authorized to do press conferences and interviews. And they need to be accountable for distributing information relevant to the entire community, not just on their favorite Facebook page with a select group of fans. The public, the entire community, have the want, and the right to know.