Freedom Of Information Act was first in Indian Country

BY TESINA JACKSON
Former Reporter
06/12/2014 10:30 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The Cherokee Nation enacted its Freedom of Information and Rights of Privacy Act in 2001, becoming the first Federally recognized tribe to allow citizens access to public records of a public body. Governmental bodies in the United States, including some tribes, have similar laws governing the availability of information contained in public records.

“Native Americans have as much right as anybody else to get information from their government,” Kevin R. Kemper, former journalist and University of Arizona assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences, said. “When a tribe doesn’t have a freedom of information law, it’s extremely tough for journalists and the public.”

Kemper, who also serves as a Native American Journalists Association Legal Hotline intake liaison, said he believes strongly in freedom of information and tribal sovereignty.

“Each tribe needs to have the opportunity to have a freedom of information act, incorporate freedom of information as a way of helping the people,” he said.

According to the CN FOIA, a public record includes all books, papers, maps, photographs, cards, tapes, recordings or other documentary materials regardless of physical form or characteristics prepared, owned, used, in the possession of, or retained by a public body.

“The requirements under FOIA are that (a request) be in writing to the department with a specific request for the document you are requesting,” CN Attorney General Todd Hembree said. “The department will take it, the process is to have it reviewed by the Attorney General’s Office to see if it meets the requirements of FOIA, and we handle it according to process.”

However, Hembree said there are documents, such as meeting minutes of a public body, that don’t need a formal request.

Each department of the tribe’s executive and legislative branches, after receiving a records request, has 15 business days to fulfill the request. According to the act, if written notification of the response is neither mailed nor personally delivered to the person requesting the documents within the 15 days, the request must be considered denied and the requestor may appeal the denial.

After reviewing the CN FOIA, Joey Senat, Oklahoma State University School of Media & Strategic Communications associate professor, said if a record is obviously public information then the person handling it should know that.

“Anyone should be able to walk up and make a request right there,” Senat, who served on the Society of Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee, said. “If the law was written so it was effective, it would allow anyone in the tribe to walk up to a public agency and make a request for a record that’s with that agency or with that official.

“If the record is right there and it can be made a copy, it should be provided on the spot, under the ways our law is written,” he added. “Having a 15-day delay wouldn’t be acceptable under (Oklahoma) state law.”

Hembree said he hasn’t received any complaints about the current process so he assumes it’s working fine. However, he said his staff has been overwhelmed by an increase of requests that come from a select group of people.

“The purpose of the act ¬– and it’s a great purpose – is to make sure that citizens know how their government is run, know how their money is made, know how their money is spent and the system has worked greatly up until October 2011, at which time there had been a dramatic increase in the amount of FIOA (requests),” he said. “That’s always been my number one goal, people will have that right and I, for one, will never stand in the way of that right.”

But Senat said because the CN FOIA gives tribal citizens the right to know what their government does the costs and number of requests shouldn’t matter.

“God forbid that the citizens know what their government is doing and that they want to find out,” he said. “It costs too much and there’s an increase? Well God forbid that the public actually put into effect the statute that says they have a right to know. That’s the purpose of these statutes and people should put them into effect and make requests. That’s why they’re there.”

Senat added that a list of all record requests should also be a public record and anyone should be able to ask for it.

“It’s a way to provide a paper trail so that the public can judge how well their government is responding to records requests,” he said. “Every time they have gotten a request, that’s a record.”

What records are public?

Public records are documents or pieces of information that are not considered exempt or confidential. Under the CN FOIA, certain categories are specifically made public information, however the use of the information for commercial solicitation is prohibited.

Public information includes the names; sex; race; title and dates of employment of all employees of public bodies; administrative staff manuals and instructions to staff that affect a member of the public; final opinions; documents identifying persons confined in any jail, detention center or prison; statements and interpretations of policy; statute and the Constitution; written planning policies and goals and final planning decisions; final CN audits and of its subsidiaries; information in or taken from any account; voucher or contract dealing with the receipt or expenditure of public or other funds by public bodies; the minutes and votes of all proceedings of all public bodies; and reports that disclose the nature, substance and location of any crime or alleged crime reported as having been committed.

“Tribal people expect transparency and accountability from their leaders, and there are a lot of great leaders throughout Indian Country,” Kemper said. “The best leaders tend to recognize transparency.”

The Nation’s FOIA states that any person has a right to inspect and/or copy public records.

“That’s one of the problems with how it is written now,” Senat said of the tribal law. “It should say ‘have the right to inspect and copy.’ It shouldn’t say ‘or.’ You should have the right to inspect a record and make your own copy if it means with a pencil and paper, to write down what you’re reading. Even with technology today, with a cell phone, the simplest thing is to take a photograph of a document.”

Some record copying may require a fee

According to the act, a public body – which is any CN board, commission, agency, authority, any public or governmental body or political subdivision of the Nation, including any organization or agency supported in whole or in part by public funds – may establish and collect fees that do not exceed the actual cost of searching for or making copies of records.

However, records must be furnished at the lowest possible cost and be provided in a form that is both convenient and practical for use by the person requesting copies of the records concerned. Fees may not be charged for examination and review to determine if the documents are subject to disclosure.

Open meetings and their rules

According to Robert’s Rules of Order, an executive session is a meeting or portion of a meeting that is convened in private. Only members of the governing body are entitled to attend but they may invite others to stay at the pleasure of that board, council, committee or commission. A motion is required to go into executive session and a majority must approve it. Those present must maintain the confidentiality of the discussion.

The regular meeting minutes should indicate when the board went into an executive session, what the primary reason was, any formal decisions that were made in executive session and when the board, council, committee or commission came out of executive session.

Investments or other financial matters may be in executive session if disclosure of the deliberations or decisions would jeopardize the ability to implement a decision or to achieve investment objectives.

A record of the board or of its fiduciary agents that discloses deliberations about or a tentative or final decision on, investments or other financial matters is exempt from disclosure as long as its disclosure would jeopardize the ability to implement an investment decision or program or to achieve investment objectives.

The panel may discuss, deliberate on and make decisions on a portion of the annual investment plan or other related financial or investment matters in executive session if disclosure would jeopardize the ability to implement that portion of the plan or achieve investment objectives.

A record of the panel that discloses discussions, deliberations or decisions on portions of the annual investment plan or other related financial or investment matters is not a public record to the extent and so long as its disclosure would jeopardize the ability to implement that portion of the plan or achieve investment objectives.

Matters exempt from disclosure

A public body may, but is not required to, exempt from disclosure information of a personal nature that would constitute unreasonable invasion of personal privacy, trade secrets, records of law enforcement under investigation and documents to proposed contractual arrangements and proposed sales or purchase of property.

Specific, individual salaries are also exempt from disclosure but annual budgets contain position listings without names.

Senat said omitting salaries from the public eye is “fodder for corruption.”

“You can go down to OSU and you can ask to see what I get paid as a state employee,” he said. “There’s no way to figure out who’s getting paid what? The public is the employer. The tribal citizens are the employer. They’re the ones paying the bill. They should be entitled to know who’s being paid what specifically. It should be open because that’s one way to fight corruption. That opens it up to favoritism, political patronage, basic corruption.”

Information that would violate attorney-client relationships, the identity of the maker of a gift to a public body if the maker requests to be anonymous and the identity of an individual who makes a complaint, which alleges a violation or potential violation of law or regulation also may be exempt from disclosure.

Memoranda, correspondence and working papers in the possession of individual members of the executive and legislative branches or their immediate staff are exempt. However, nothing may be construed as limiting or restricting public access to source documents or records, factual data or summaries of factual data, papers, minutes or reports.

Other memoranda, correspondence, documents and working papers relative to efforts to attract business or industry to invest within the CN may be exempt from disclosure. However, any record that is requested and is exempt and not disclosed or is disclosed and marked confidential should have a statement explaining the reasons for that determination.

“It does has a lot of common exemptions,” Senat said. “This is a strength under the law where it says that if they’re going to deny it they have to explain why something is exempt. These statutes can be very strong, but if they’re not enforced they’re worthless.”

Photographs, signatures, addresses, race, weight, height, Social Security number and digitized images from a driver’s license or personal identification cards are also not considered public records.

“Some leaders keep things secret and that could violate the right of the people,” Kemper said. “You see a lot of that throughout Indian Country and the tribe will have to sort that out.”

Kemper added that he believes there are some understandable exceptions such as sacred knowledge.

“Every tribe’s culture is different, that’s why it’s important to create freedom of information that’s a cultural match,” he said.

Penalties for not providing records

Any CN citizen may look to the District Court for a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief in FOIA cases as long as the application is made not later than one year following the date on which the alleged violation occurs or one year after a public vote in public session.

The court may order equitable relief as it considers appropriate and a violation must be considered to be an irreparable injury for which no adequate remedy at law exists.

If a person or entity seeking such relief prevails, they may be awarded reasonable attorney fees and other costs of litigation. If they prevail in part, the court may award them reasonable attorney fees or an appropriate portion.

According to the act, any person or group of persons who willfully and maliciously violates the provisions of the FOIA may be found guilty of a crime and upon conviction shall be fine not more than $100 or imprisoned for not more than 30 days for the first offense. For the second offense, the fine shall not be more than $200 or imprisoned for not more than 60 days and shall not be fine more than $300 or imprisoned for not more than 90 days.

News

BY STAFF REPORTS
08/18/2017 03:15 PM
ROCKY MOUNTAIN, Okla. – The Rocky Mountain Community Organization is hosting two events in August at its community building near Stilwell. RMCO will host the Adair County Historical & Genealogical Association at 6 p.m., Aug. 22. ACH&GA volunteers will be on hand to discuss area history and genealogy. Beans and cornbread will be served at 5:30 p.m., and everyone is welcome to attend. The Adair County Historical & Genealogical Association is a non-profit organization maintained by volunteers. Located in the rehabilitated 1915 Kansas City Southern Railroad Depot in Stilwell, the association collects countywide research materials, genealogies of county families and artifacts of historical and cultural significance. Volunteers provide research and genealogical assistance to individuals interested in learning more about their family’s past. Tours of the county history museum provide access to artifacts that provide a deeper appreciation of the county’s history. Also, at 7 p.m., Aug. 26, RMCO will host a Movie Night where “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” will be shown. Admission is free, and the concession stand will open at 6 p.m. Seating is available, but moviegoers are welcome to bring their own chairs. People also have an opportunity to win a door prize by signing in when they arrive. For more information, call 918-696-4965.
BY STACIE GUTHRIE
Reporter – @cp_sguthrie
08/18/2017 08:15 AM
OOLOGAH, Okla. – For more than 20 years, the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore has paid homage to Will Rogers and Wiley Post with an annual fly-in at the Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch. Rogers, a Cherokee Nation citizen, and Post, a famed aviator, died in a plane crash on Aug. 15, 1935, in Point Barrow, Alaska. Tad Jones, the museum’s executive director, said this year commemorates the 82nd anniversary of their passing. “His (Rogers) character is what we want to try to keep alive. He was a guy that respected everybody, which I think it’d be great for our entire nation now to show that respect towards others,” he said. “I know Will Rogers, if he was here, he would love it because he was a man that just loved action activities, and this event has just gotten to be huge over the last number of years.” The event kicked off at 7:30 a.m. Jones said people and planes began arriving as early as 6:45 a.m. The free event offered more than 100 planes, a car show, Cherokee storytelling, 19th century games for children and the opportunity to tour Rogers’ birthplace home. The planes landed on an airstrip adjacent to the Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch allowing visitors to get an up-close look at them. “You get to walk around with the planes, so it’s not just looking at them from a distance. But when they land you can walk out among the planes, and sometimes they’ll let you sit in the cockpits,” Jones said. Rogers’ great-granddaughter, Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry, said the event is a great way to continue Rogers’ legacy while helping others learn his story. “This is what I love the most is seeing these young children out here with a mixture of older generations because that’s who needs to learn about Will Rogers is these up-and-coming children,” she said. “I am just so grateful that people want to continue his legacy, and to bring their families out to something that’s a tradition like this. And what better place than his actual birth home.” Rogers-Etcheverry said seeing people honor Rogers’ means “everything” to her. “There’s nothing negative when you talk to people who remember him or have heard about him, it’s always positive,” she said. “He was such a role model to so many people, so that means everything to me.” Tribal Councilor Keith Austin said the tribe annually contributes to the museum and ranch to ensure they remain “healthy and strong.” This year the CN gave $25,000. “This is a state of Oklahoma facility, and they are really struggling with their budget,” he said. “It’s important to us as Cherokee people to support this and make sure that it remains healthy and strong.” For the past three years there has also been a National Day of Remembrance during the fly-in for those who have died in small airplane crashes. “We have Will and Wiley who died in a small airplane crash, and so we want to honor anyone who has died in a small airplane crash. You hear a tragedy with the big airplanes, but there is a lot of people who have passed away in small airplane crashes,” Jones said. “At 10 o’clock (a.m.) we have a National Day of Remembrance that we put on Facebook all over the country, and we honor those that have died in small airplane crashes. We have a 35 second moment of silence, which is for 1935 when Will Rogers and Wiley Post died.” For more information, visit <a href="http://www.willrogers.com" target="_blank">www.willrogers.com</a>.
BY LINDSEY BARK
News Writer
08/17/2017 04:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Dr. Mike Dobbins, of Fort Gibson, said he’s ready to serve his first term as the Dist. 4 Tribal Councilor and looks to improve the Cherokee Nation’s health care system. Dobbins will take his councilor seat with 37 years of experience in health care, practicing dentistry for 20 of those years. “I chose to run because from a distance I’ve become quite familiar with the Cherokee health system, and there are some great things about it. The framework’s in place…and a lot of good has transpired. With my experience I feel like I can lend some expertise to help improve the system. That was my primary motive in running for council...to see what I could do to improve the health care system,” Dobbins said. He said he has more to learn about the CN Health Services and how it functions on a daily basis. Dobbins is also involved in higher education, teaching at dental schools for the past 17 years and assisting Cherokee students interested in health care. “I’ve assisted multiple Cherokee students with scholarship opportunities, not only with Cherokee scholarships, but with other Native American scholarships and try to help them go through college with little-to-no debt as possible,” he said. He said in Dist. 4, he’s also heard concerns from CN citizens about housing issues. “I’m also knowledgeable of the fact that there’s a lot of other Cherokee needs (including) infrastructure, housing, elder care. I’m also sensitive to those areas as well. I plan to be a multi-purpose councilman,” Dobbins said. “I’m on the outside right now, but I intend to see (and) get familiarized with the housing program and make sure that citizens of District 4 are considered for any housing possibilities.” The 2017 Tribal Council election was Dobbins’ second attempt at becoming a CN legislator. He said he learned from his “mistakes” four years ago and that it was a “less stressful” campaign this time around. “I ran four years ago and lost by two (votes) to an 18-year incumbent,” he said. “You learn by experience, and I enlisted more help, actually, this time. I tried to do a lot of myself four years ago. I’d say…most importantly I learned what not to do rather than what to do.” Dobbins said he has an obligation to serve not only the CN citizens who helped or voted for him, but also those who did not. “I’m their councilman now, and I feel a deep debt of obligation to fulfill that duty,” he said. “I just look forward to serving the Cherokee people on the council. I do have a busy schedule but I feel like I will be accessible. I have a busy schedule outside my councilman responsibilities, but my councilman responsibility will be my priority.”
BY LINDSEY BARK
News Writer
08/16/2017 04:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – E.O. Smith, of Vian, on Aug. 14 will begin serving his first term as the Dist. 5 Tribal Councilor after winning a July 22 runoff election. He will take the seat being vacated by Tribal Councilor David Thornton. Smith won the runoff against Cherokee Nation citizen Uriah Grass by receiving 52.26 of the vote. He previously spent eight years as a CN Food Distribution warehouse manager in Sallisaw. His platform includes improving education, employment and health care for Cherokees. “I want to help. There’s some of these families, they don’t need to live in the condition they live in. (Cherokee) Nation is strong but I’d like to help make it stronger. I just care about people…I just want to make things better for District 5,” he said. Born in Mexico, Smith moved to Vian with his mother and father at age 2. “My dad was a farmer, and back then there wasn’t any farm aid or anything, and a flood wiped them out and they lost everything they had. So he had to move out to Mexico and worked in the oil fields, saved up money to come back home,” he said. After seeing his father’s work ethic and ability to move back to the United States to become a business owner, Smith followed in father’s footsteps by becoming a business owner, operating two stores in Vian for 29 years. Smith was also involved with youth and youth sports, coaching sports teams for more than 42 years. “That’s my passion. That’s what I love to do. I like working with kids,” Smith said. As a councilman for the city of Vian, Smith said he see too many young people, Cherokees and non-Cherokees, with no desire to work and wants to motivate them to find jobs. Smith said in his travels in the CN, about 85 percent of people he talked to brought up improving health care, especially for elders. “Overall, I just want to help improve things. I’m for all the programs we got going. I don’t want to cut any. I’d like to see some improve,” he said. He said he had a tough election but is ready to get his feet on the ground and see what lies ahead of him as a Tribal Councilor to improve programs and other issues in the CN and Dist.5 “We all want good things for the (Cherokee) Nation, or we wouldn’t be running. I’m just so excited for this chance. I can’t wait to get started. I really want to try to help. I’m 66. I feel good and this may be my last chance to do something good,” Smith said. Smith said he is creating an office in Vian where he will be available from 9 a.m. to noon five days a week and will also be accessible by phone at 918-705-1845. “Let’s pull together and help me make this a good four years. Let’s don’t fight. Let’s pull together,” Smith said.
BY CHANDLER KIDD
Intern
08/16/2017 12:00 PM
JAY, Okla. – After winning a July 22 runoff, Mike Shambaugh is the new Tribal Councilor for Dist. 9, which covers the southern half of Delaware County and part of eastern Mayes County. The current chief of police in Jay, whose has been involved with law enforcement for 28 years, said he’s a goal-oriented person, and it’s been a lifelong goal to serve on the Tribal Council. Shambaugh obtained that goal after by earning 54.96 percent of the vote in the runoff against Cherokee Nation citizen Clifton Hughes. “The opportunity came up, and I thought it would be a great time to run and I won,” he said. Shambaugh said he began his career in law enforcement as a patrolman and worked his way to a district attorney investigator. As Jay’s chief of police and holding an administrator position, Shambaugh is accustomed to dealing with people’s problems in a professional way, he said. “You have to learn to listen as an administrator. Everybody has a story to tell when they have a problem,” Shambaugh said. “The first thing that is out of my mouth is ‘What can I do to help you today?’ I want to know how to help them or where I can send them to get help.” He said he’s most excited to be working and meeting people of Dist. 9 while representing the CN as a whole. He also said he plans to incorporate his experience with doing paperwork to help CN citizens get services while he serving for the next four years. “A lot of people have trouble doing paperwork with the Cherokee Nation because it is pretty extensive in some areas. Well, I would be willing to sit down with them and even write it out for them if they were having trouble filling it out,” he said. Shambaugh added that he believes it is important for people outside of the CN to know the Cherokee people are here to help. He stated that the Nation is always pushing forward to make things better for its people. During his time as a tribal legislator, he said wants to work to improve elder care. “I have already had four of five phone calls from people who need help, and my job hasn’t even started yet. Whether it is handicap ramps or something else,” he said. “Health care, elder care and education are three big things with me, and the Cherokee Nation has shown that these are important issues with them also.” Shambaugh said he’s proud of his Cherokee heritage, and to honor it while on the Tribal Council he said he plans on incorporating his board position at the United Way in hopes of delivering school supplies to schools in the CN that need assistance. “My mother was full blood, and my family as far back as I first remember spoke mainly Cherokee when I was young. Everything that I have seen with the Cherokee Nation has made me proud because the Nation has made great strides to help their citizens,” he said. Shambaugh and the other eight Tribal Councilors who won seats in this year’s elections were inaugurated on Aug. 14.
BY ROGER GRAHAM
Multimedia Producer – @cp_rgraham
08/15/2017 04:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The former Cherokee Nation Marshal Service building located west of the W.W. Keeler Tribal Complex has had many uses since it was built in the 1980s, but its days are numbered. The building will soon be taken down to provide more parking for the Tribal Complex, on which a second story was recently added to provide more office space and accommodate the tribe’s courts. “The building will be disassembled rather than demolished,” CN Construction Project Administrator Paul Crosslin said. “We’re hoping we can save some parts for future construction projects.” Crosslin said he is not certain when the building will be disassembled. Tests such as tests for asbestos levels first need to be completed. “We’re hoping to start the disassembly next week (week of Aug. 14) but that decision hasn’t been made yet,” he said. Longtime CN employees estimate the building was constructed in the mid-1980s as a green house with no insulation. In the 1990s, the building housed the Cherokee Gift shop. “I worked there when I started in 1992,” Cherokee Gift Shop General Manager Linda Taylor said. “That was before the gift shop was moved to the front of the Cherokee Nation Annex building. CNMS Capt. Danny Tanner said the building housed the CNMS from 2001 until this past March. “Our new location (inside the Cherokee Nation EMS building east of the Tribal Complex) was actually built for the Marshal Service, but the CN Election Commission ended up moving in,” he said. Tanner said he was grateful the CNMS was able to move to its new location. “This is where Cherokee Marshal Service should be located.”