Cherokee Council amends nation's FOI law

Danielle Keeton-Olsen | Freedom of Information | News | June 18, 2014

The Cherokee Nation Council passed an amendment to its freedom of information law that will extend the response time to records requests about the tribe’s government.

The Freedom of Information Act amendment passed 10-6 Monday night with one councilor not in attendance, after the council also passed an amendment to its Governmental Records Act, which provides government officials access to records.

The amendment creates an information officer that will receive all records requests and will be independent of any office within the government. Under the old act, the attorney general handled records requests from the press and public.

The time the tribal government has to respond to requests increased by five days, and the amendment also forces the information officer to redact identifying information on all citizens, including Social Security number, Cherokee citizenship number, date of birth and email address.

Tribal Councilor Cara Cowan Watts voted against amendments to the FOIA and GRA because she did not agree with extended response times and felt unsure of some of the additions to the laws.

For example, Watts said she fears some of the exemptions added in the amendment will deny citizens access to certain documents.

The added exemptions include bid or financial documents leading up to contracts with the governments, and documents that are already publicly available or previously provided, which creates a “huge loophole that a truck could drive through,” Watts said.

John Shurr, editorial board chair for the Cherokee Phoenix, the tribe’s newspaper, said he believes the amendment’s changes to the act are unnecessary. The previous act already redacted identifying information for private citizens, and the extended response time should not be necessary, Shurr said.

“The editorial board that I chair took a position that there wasn’t anything in need of fixing with the FOIA law, and I still believe that,” Shurr said. “Everything that was a concern had already been addressed in the law.”

Shurr, a former South Carolina Associated Press Bureau Chief who helped form the tribe’s FOIA, said he does not believe the amendment will have major impacts on the Cherokee Phoenix’s records requests, but it will likely slow response times for those who are not members of the tribe.

In 2001, the Cherokee Nation became the first Native American nation to implement a Freedom of Information Act. Shurr said the tribe modeled its FOIA after South Carolina’s law.

“There was no reason to open it up and start fixing things that weren’t broken,” Shurr said.