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Cherokee Nation council considers changes to FOI law

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  1. Freedom of Information
The Rules Committee of the Cherokee Nation’s tribal council voted 14-3 Wednesday in favor of changes to the tribe’s Freedom…

The Rules Committee of the Cherokee Nation’s tribal council voted 14-3 Wednesday in favor of changes to the tribe’s Freedom of Information Act, extending the government’s records request response time and centralizing requests in a single independent ombudsman.

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.

The vote came after several weeks of discussion between tribal leaders and members of the tribe concerned with the extent of the proposed changes. The amendments the committee approved yesterday backed off several proposals that would have imposed roadblocks to access.

The proposed changes to the FOIA would increase the time the tribal government has to respond to records requests from 15 to 20 days.

In discussion Wednesday, the Rules Committee also approved a proposal to keep an independent government employee devoted to records requests.

The first draft of the amendment would have extended the records request response time to 60 days, established an information officer who would handle records requests through the attorney general’s office, and exempted Cherokee Nation Businesses from the public records law, which are the primary source of revenue for the tribe aside from outside funding.

“If there’s anything that really ought to be scrutinized, it’s money coming and going within the tribe, and that’s always the case when you’re doing FOI work. You want to follow the money,” said John Shurr, the editorial board chairman of the Cherokee Phoenix.

Shurr had previously worked to shorten the government’s response time and did not see the need for the extended period, but said he was glad to see that under the plan that passed yesterday, the proposed FOI employee would be politically independent.

“That [change to the amendment] seemed to solve that problem as much as it was solvable in that moment,” Shurr said.

After the first amendment draft was released, the Phoenix’s Editor Bryan Pollard met with the council to explain the current FOIA and reassure council members that business’ proprietary information will still be protected, Shurr said.

“I think there was a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about the FOI, and [Pollard] was able to lend some clarity,” Shurr said.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent a letter to the tribe urging them not to extend response time beyond 20 days and asking the council to continue discussions with the Cherokee Phoenix and other stakeholders before making further changes to the law.

During the committee’s discussion, Will Chavez, senior reporter for the Cherokee Phoenix who attended to cover citizens’ protests of the amendment, said Tribal Council Speaker Tina Glory-Jordan approached him and asked him to stop taking photos and video of the meeting.

Chavez said he explained his rights to attend a public meeting, but he was asked to leave until the tribe’s attorney general spoke to the council and Chavez was allowed back in.

Chavez said he had never been denied access to a meeting before, but another Phoenix reporter was not allowed to attend a meeting by a council subcommittee formed to discuss the nation’s FOIA last month.

“It was shocking to me yesterday,” Chavez said. “It’s never happened before, and it’s happened twice in two months, and I hope the future’s better.”

The Cherokee Nation was the first Native American tribe to establish a Freedom of Information law, and the nation’s Chief Bill John Baker said in a statement to the tribe that he always has and will continue to “support Cherokee citizens’ rights to access information about our tribe.”

“While challenges may currently exist within these laws, and there may be need for reform, transparency and openness must remain one of the cornerstones of our government,” Baker stated.

However, Tribal Councilor Cara Cowan Watts, who voted against the amendment, said during the discussion Wednesday that she experienced difficulties in her past records requests and had been questioned for her motives in requesting information. On one occasion, she requested housing performance records and received two and a half boxes of paper documents, when the office should have told her the website “was not updated.”

“Although [the amendment] appears to be in a nicer package, a softer package, we are still diminishing the rights of the public,” Watts said in the discussion, referring to the differences between the original amendment proposal and the version that passed yesterday.

Mary Hudetz, board president of the Native American Journalists Association, said the Cherokee government has a history of being responsive to records requests compared to other tribes. The Bureau of Indian Affairs also centralizes its records requests to one person within the government, similar to the proposed amendment by the Cherokee Nation, and this system caused significant delays in response time, Hudetz said.

“If there’s another government trying to do that, it worries me,” Hudetz said.

The amendment will go to the full council next month, but it is likely to undergo some changes before then, Shurr said.