COMMENTARY: Hiding info

by Nov 30, 2022OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


We here, at the One Feather, are used to hearing authorities tell us that they limit the release of information for the good of the community, or as parents used to tell children, “for your own good.” And there are indeed instances where releasing certain information could mess up deals in progress or incidents under investigation might be compromised. No problem. We are a community asset.

The employees of the One Feather have a vested interest in the community and have no desire to interfere with the normal flow of government negotiations or investigations. We are community members and citizens, and we are impacted personally by even the news we report. It is our desire, and duty under Cherokee Code, to inform, to the greatest extent possible, the members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, of news that interests and impacts them.

However, the parent/child relationship is not a good one for our community to allow to continue. Allowing the tribal government to say to the community we are not going to do a thing, or to do a thing, simply “because we say so” is not democracy and is more akin to the relationship between Indian tribes and the federal government during the period of the Removal. Placation is for the ignorant, not the members of an intelligent forward-thinking tribe. Never, ever, should we turn into a people who blindly accepts direction from any government, including our own.

I bring this up again because it bears repeating; we need an organized, empowered public information office for our tribe. We need trained public information officers who can disseminate information, official information, based on a set of defined parameters that will protect the community’s assets and individual tribal member’s rights, but not allow government or agencies thereof to embargo public information until it suits them to release it, using the vague definitions outlined in Code. And even where the types of information are specific, the Code flexes to allow the agency’s ability to produce the information to be a factor as to if the public will receive it. Timelines in the Code have not been modified to keep up with the times, allowing for up to two weeks just to get an answer as to whether the data-keeper will provide the information and allowing additional days/weeks to provide it if it is not readily available.

In the high-tech, modern world, where else in the world would there be an entity as large as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) that would need two weeks to mine their own data? The tribe spent untold labor hours and funds on additional resources, including outside expertise, to bolster our ability to manage data since the cyberattack on Dec. 7, 2019. And yet, according to the Code, we are no faster at information parsing than we were in 2006 when portions of the Code dictated that the government had a 15-day window to respond to information requests from the public.

Indeed, the issue is not technology. It is a lack of uniformity in dissemination. It is a lack of checks and balances. Managers and directors with no formal training in public information rely on outdated and vague public records law, if anything at all, to attempt to decide what information the paper, and we, the people, are allowed to have. And due to the language in the EBCI Personnel Policy, managers, directors, or any other employee of the tribe would have additional trepidation in providing information to the paper or anyone else. The policy, revised Oct. 5, 2021, is written as follows:

“Sec. 2.21 Confidentiality

Many of the government, financial, business, personnel, medical, and tribal member records and information that employees of the EBCI deal with are confidential. Employees who work with or may be in contact with confidential materials and matters are always required to maintain strict confidentiality of these matters while employed and after termination of employment. Some departments and positions may require that a specific confidentiality agreement be signed by employees.

Confidential records, correspondence and information shall not be removed from work premises, transferred to non-EBCI work computers or devices, or disclosed to any person or third party for non-work-related purposes or outside of an employee’s specific authority without prior written permission from the Principal Chief.

Employees in certain departments and positions are required to comply with applicable privacy laws and the EBCI’s HIPAA Policy and to sign an acknowledgement that they have read and understand the applicable policies.

Sec. 2.22 Media Requests and Statements

Employees may not appear for or speak to the media on behalf of the EBCI or make public statements representing the EBCI without prior approval from the Office of the Principal Chief. Any inquiries from the media for information, records, or public statements should be directed to the Office of the Principal Chief.”

It is no wonder that information dissemination would crawl with the limitations placed on it in the personnel policy and the ambiguities inherent in Code chapter 132. And did you notice the word “confidentiality” is never defined? Like the words “transparency” and “sovereignty”, the meaning of the word confidentiality requires more than just a little definition, especially when it comes to tribal information that should be accessible to the community.

But much of this is old ground. We have discussed this before. What is new and a little concerning is some of the commentary that has popped up on the paper’s social media page. Some folks in our community would like to be even more suppressive of information. One discussion, about the release of the per capita amount, stated flatly that it is inappropriate for the One Feather to post that information. The common rationale was that “outsiders don’t need to know the amount and people outside the tribe read the One Feather.” And it is true that many people outside the tribal membership read the One Feather, either in-print or online. Then again, many of our own people do too. It is a constant battle to satisfy the people on one hand who do not think we release enough information and the people who think we share too much on the other hand.

Traditionally, newspapers and other media have been looked to as the watchdogs of a community. It is our whole job in Code – to report to you, the community, information that is relevant to you. It is impossible to overemphasize how important a media free from government interference is to the freedom of a community. Information is the commodity by which our government functions and how we are governed. For example, how much longer, if ever, would it take for citizens of our tribe to find out about inequities in per capita checks if the amount was not publicly announced? Do we really want the per capita amount to be considered confidential information? I am a member and I do not. I do not want information suppressed that I need to know. I want it readily available, and I want it to be announced publicly so that, when I or any other citizen picks up their checks, we know that we are getting the right amount. The distribution is supposed to be made equally to all tribal members, so we should all know what the equal amount is. That is the value in having the information made public. Accountability. What a concept!

The same holds true for virtually all information in the hands of government. Once a tribal contract is executed, the contract should be public. Once an investigation is completed and a final report filed, the report should be public. And we, as a community media outlet, should not and would not hide information from you. Information suppression is not the job we are tasked with by the Code. It’s not the expectation of most of our community.

Without permanent language in the governing document to secure that right, we are only one administration away from losing it. Which really means is that it is not a right at all, but a concession provided by our government that could be taken away in a single month. We have a Tribal Council and Executive Office that understands the need of a free press, and for as long as that lasts, you will continue to see strides toward more information going out to the public. What is really needed is a constitutional right to free speech and free press. Hopefully, we, as a tribal community, will get there.