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Transparency in the Cherokee Nation

Cherokee Phoenix photo by Will Chavez - Protesters gather outside a meeting where a legislative committee was considering restrictive amendments to the open records laws of the Cherokee Nation.

Cherokee Phoenix photo by Will Chavez Protesters gather outside a meeting where a legislative committee was considering restrictive amendments to the open records laws of the Cherokee Nation.

INTRODUCTION

Changes to the  Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) were  proposed during the Tribal Council’s Rules Committee  on April 24th, 2014. Some feared if these changes were passed, they would have severely restricted access to records from the government and  businesses of the Cherokee Nation.  They claimed Cherokees would not really know what is going on in the Cherokee Nation. The narrative of this situation goes unfolded something like this: On April 24th Council Member Tina Glory-Jordon sponsored two amendments to the  Cherokee Nation’s current laws.  One proposed changes to the FIOA  and the other to the GRA.  After several council members objected, the council voted to delay its  passage. The council decided to form a “Work Group” to  study the amendments.  The stated intention of the work group was to study costs associated with carrying out the current law.  An eight-person “Work Group”  was selected  and held their first meeting on May 13th. The “Work Group” presented its finding in a Rules Committee meeting on May 28t.h. The council agreed to  a new version of the law with the major changes eliminated.  The Rules Committee passed this version and now it awaits time to be voted into law in the General Council.  

BACKGROUND

The Freedom of Information Act , created in 1966, only applies  to the federal government, not states or Indian tribes.  In 2001 the Cherokee Nation become one of the first tribes in the Nation to pass their own FOIA called “Cherokee Nation Freedom of Information and Rights of Privacy Act.” In the general discussion of this issue, the “Freedom of Information Act”  (FOIA) refers to  two separate laws. The “Cherokee Nation Freedom of Information and Rights of Privacy Act” (FIOA)  addresses requests from the general public.  The “Cherokee Nation Governmental Records Act” (GRA)  deals with requests from Cherokee Nation government officials such as Tribal Councilors.  Information from the GRA is confidential or restricted, and those people who access this information can only share it with a limited number of Tribal Officials.

THE FOIA CONTROVERSY

Several  Tribal Councilors protested  the FOIA amendments introduced during the  April 24th Council Meeting and  publicly said the changes would severely restrict access to Cherokee Nation records. Other councilors said they wanted to study the changes.  Chief Baker expressed concerns about politically motivated FOIA requests and  asserted the council and work group were working to strengthen transparency. Many Cherokee citizens spoke out against the amendments in various ways from  social media to emailing council members and several launched organized protests.  An on-line petition accumulated over 720 votes against changes to the law. On May 28th, the Tribal Council Rules Committee agreed to a refined version of the law.  All major revisions presented a month earlier were absent .  The one  significant addition was the  creation of a new “one point” office position to deal with FOIA requests. The second part of the controversy centers around factions in the council and the Administration.   Some Councilors question the actions of the Administration  and address the issue of the Administration continuing to block requests for information.  Other Councilors express the view that the Nation is open and transparent and they are working to strengthen the  FOIA laws.  

OUTCOME

Although citizen protests  appears to have effectively stopped the major  proposed FOIA changes, the new revised law has yet to be passed in council.  Also, for some Cherokees, the question of government transparency remains unanswered.  FOIA  lawsuits are still pending against the Administration. The Administration’s position is that they are committed to openness and transparency.

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