Freedom Of Information Act was first in Indian Country

BY TESINA JACKSON
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.
About the Author
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Tesina first started working as an intern for the Cherokee Phoenix after receiving the John Shurr Journalism Award in 2009. Later that year, Tesina received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and in 2010 joined the Phoenix staff as a reporter.    

In 2006, Tesina received an internship at The Forum newspaper in Fargo, N.D., after attending the American Indian Journalism Institute at the University of South Dakota. She also attended the AIJI summer program in 2007 and in 2009 she participated in the Native American Journalists Association student projects as a reporter. Tesina is currently a member of NAJA and the Investigative Reporters & Editors organization.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Tesina first started working as an intern for the Cherokee Phoenix after receiving the John Shurr Journalism Award in 2009. Later that year, Tesina received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and in 2010 joined the Phoenix staff as a reporter. In 2006, Tesina received an internship at The Forum newspaper in Fargo, N.D., after attending the American Indian Journalism Institute at the University of South Dakota. She also attended the AIJI summer program in 2007 and in 2009 she participated in the Native American Journalists Association student projects as a reporter. Tesina is currently a member of NAJA and the Investigative Reporters & Editors organization.

News

BY WILL CHAVEZ
Senior Reporter
10/23/2014 12:45 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The North American Indian Court Judges Association recently honored Cherokee Nation District Court Clerk Kristi Moncooyea for her work with the court. Moncooyea, who received the “Court Support Excellence Award,” has served as the only clerk for the District Court for the past 10 years and is “the amiable face that greets everyone who comes to the Cherokee Nation District Court,” a NAICJA statement reads. “Handling the workload of at least three or four clerks all by herself, she handles the extraordinary caseload with great energy and resourcefulness,” the statement reads. “In addition to maintaining the court’s docket and case files, she answers the phone and patiently deals with attorneys, parties, law enforcement officers, and community members on a daily basis.” Moncooyea, who is a CN citizen, said it is “very humbling” to be recognized by the NAICJA. “I consider it an honor and privilege to work in the Cherokee Nation judicial system providing assistance to our Cherokee citizens as well as the general public who require services of the court,” Moncooyea said. “I share this award with the awesome court staff I work with daily who are always there to assist and help make the courthouse a friendly place to come to.” District Court Judge John T. Cripps said Moncooyea is “a role model and inspiration” for tribal court personnel who are often challenged to do a great deal with very little assistance or resources. “She is always courteous and respectful. I can find no one who does not appreciate her work and her abilities. She is the epitome of what a tribal employee should exemplify,” Cripps said. Moncooyea is the first to receive the “Court Support Excellence Award,” from NAICJA.
BY JAMI MURPHY
Reporter
10/22/2014 01:08 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The Cherokee Nation’s Election Commission on Oct. 14 voted to remove two voting precincts and limit the time news reporters can shoot inside precincts during elections to five minutes. Commissioners said a precinct in Cookson was added during the Tribal Council’s redistricting process but never opened as a polling place. Commissioner Shawna Calico said a decision was needed on whether to keep Cookson’s polling place or remove it. She said after some research, voters were going to have to drive either north or south around Lake Tenkiller to vote in Cookson. “So this (Keys) is still the central location, so I say we just leave it at Keys (and remove Cookson),” she said. Commissioner Teresa Hart asked how many voters were located in that area and Calico said there were more voters on the Keys side of Lake Tenkiller than the Cookson side. According to an EC report, Keys has more than 500 voters registered and Cookson had a little more than 150. Calico motioned to remove Cookson’s precinct from Dist. 3 and Commissioner Carolyn Allen seconded it. The motion passed with Calico and Allen voting yes and Hart voting no. EC Commissioner Martha Calico was absent. Commissioners also removed the precinct in Paradise Hill and placed it in Gore. EC Chairman Bill Horton said it would be more feasible for voters. “Probably Gore will encompass more local people than Paradise Hill’s got,” he said. Commissioners then approved the revised precinct map, which is to be printed opposite of the voter registration form. Shawna Calico motioned to remove Cookson and Paradise Hill from the precinct map and add Gore as a location. The changes made to the precinct map passed with a 3-0 vote. The EC also changed a policy regarding media coverage at voting precincts. The change limits media access to five minutes in a precinct. EC officials said the new policy models the state’s voting laws. “We took the Oklahoma State and what they do and kind of adopted our situation to allow cameras into the election closure and photograph but limit the time so that they wouldn’t disrupt the voting process,” EC attorney Harvey Chaffin said. The policy amendment passed unanimously. The Cherokee Phoenix requested a copy of the changes but was told that until they pass the Tribal Council they are not final. “The By-laws and Rules & Regulations of the Election Commission that have been approved through the Election Commission still have to go through Council for approval before they are official, so those aren’t ready,” EC Administrator Madison Cornett said.
BY STAFF REPORTS
10/22/2014 11:42 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – On Oct. 27, parents can begin registering their Cherokee children for the Cherokee Nation Angel Project. CNAP, formerly known as Angel Tree, is a program that allows the public to purchase and donate clothing, toys and other gifts for Cherokee children who live within the 14-county tribal jurisdiction, and who may not otherwise receive gifts during the holiday season, according to a CN press release. “More than 2,200 children received holiday gifts through the program last year,” the release states. To qualify for the program, children must be 16 years of age or younger. Applicants must provide proof of income for all household members over the age of 18. For example, a family of three must not exceed $2,061 in household income per month, and a family of four must not exceed $2,484 per month. Those applying must provide a proof of residency and tribal citizenship card for each child. For more information, please call 918-266-5626, ext. 7720 or 918-458-6900. Applications must be filled out at the following locations from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. until Nov. 7. <strong>Beginning Oct. 27</strong> Salina: A-Mo Health Center, 900 N. Owen Walters Blvd. Catoosa: Indian Child Welfare Office, 750 S. Cherokee St., Suite O Muskogee: Three Rivers Health Center, 1001 S. 41st St. E. Vinita: Vinita Health Center, 27371 S. 4410 Road <strong>Beginning Oct. 28</strong> Chouteau: Chouteau Public Schools, 521 N. McCracken Collinsville: Victory Cherokee Community Building, 1025 N. 12th St. Nowata: Will Rogers Health Center, 1020 Lenape Drive Pryor: Cherokee Heights Housing Addition, 133 Cherokee Heights Stilwell: Indian Child Welfare Office, 401 S. 2nd Westville: 402 S. Park St. (house across from Westville Junior High) Jay: Cherokee Nation Human Services, 1501 Industrial Park <strong>Beginning Oct. 30</strong> Bartlesville: Housing Authority of the Cherokee Nation, 1003 S. Virginia <strong>Beginning Nov. 3</strong> Tahlequah: W.W. Keeler Complex Financial Resource Building, 17675 S. Muskogee Ave.
BY STAFF REPORTS
10/21/2014 01:06 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Three Cherokee communities will host Halloween-related events before and during Halloween. In Marble City, citizens are hosting the “Trail of Terror” to provide a safe but scary fun for those who dare to walk the trail. This is the ninth year for the outdoor event, and it will be held one mile south of Marble City from 7:30 p.m. to 11:55 p.m. on Oct. 24-25. People should follow signs to the Noisey Ranch. Admission is $3 per person. Because the trail is outdoors, no flip-flops are allowed to prevent injuries. It will take 15 to 20 minutes to walk through the trail, which is situated in 10 acres of woods. This year, the eighth grade class at Marble City School is doing a special scene. A volunteer work crew from Haskell Indian Nations University is also assisting with the trail. This year’s big feature is a maze and a psychedelic tunnel, said coordinator Tamara Hibbard. “All the workers are volunteers. We put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into getting it ready. We just do it for the enjoyment of the people. We never break even with admission,” she said. “Any money that we take goes back for expenses like fuel for the generator, fog juice, fake blood, props and costumes.” A free “Daisy Trail” will be available for small children that will include carnival games and non-scary stuff. For more information, call Hibbard at 918-315-2583. After trick or treating on Halloween, families are invited to the Rocky Mountain Cherokee Community Organization’s “Haunted Trail and Kiddie Carnival” from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the organization’s community building. All activities are free except for the concession stand. Cherokee storyteller Sequoyah Guess will be the guest storyteller. The trail and storytelling will be held behind the community building, weather permitting. Games and concession stand will be held inside. The trail will not be suitable for younger children. Carnival-type games will be set up and suitable for anyone. The Rocky Mountain Community is located off of 100 Hwy. in Adair County, about seven miles west of Stilwell. For more information, call Vicki McLemore at 918-506-0487. The Brushy Cherokee Action Association will host a “Haunted House and Trail” and a hayride from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 29-31 at the Brushy Community Center building. Events will last until 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 31. Cherokee Nation staff members Stephanie Buckskin and Mary Owl, along with Brushy volunteers, are building and installing the “Haunted House and Trail.” BCAAA welcomes all residents of Brushy and surrounding communities to the Halloween events. Admission is $2 per person and $10 per family. Concessions will be available. The Brushy Community Center building is located seven miles north of Sallisaw on Hwy 59 on E. 1010 Road. For more information call Gary Bolin at 918-315-7797 or Newton Spangler at 918-575-5998.
BY WILL CHAVEZ
Senior Reporter
10/21/2014 08:05 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Cherokee youth from across northeastern Oklahoma were sworn in as Tribal Youth Councilors on Oct. 13 by Cherokee Nation Supreme Court Justice Darrell Dowty. The 17 youth raised their hands and took their oaths of office during the Tribal Council meeting. The TYC will serve a one-year term and gather monthly for a meeting and activities. Activities could consist of a guest speaker, a cultural tour/activity, leadership training or community service projects. “I just think it’s fantastic that we have some up-and-coming leaders. This Youth Council is growing our leaders for the future. I’m very appreciative of the ones who agreed to serve and the staff who are helping them,” Tribal Councilor Tina Glory Jordan said. Tribal Youth Councilor from Kansas, Oklahoma Taylor Armbrister, 15, said he wants to serve on the council because he knows it will offer opportunities for him to better himself along with learning more about his Cherokee culture and heritage. “I just saw an opportunity to better myself. I look forward to doing some community service. It’s always a joy to help people in need,” he said. Along with Armbrister, the Tribal Youth Councilors are Ja-li-si Pittman, 20, of Tahlequah; Haylee Caviness, 17, of Tahlequah; Jacob Chavez, 17, of Tahlequah; Haley Teehee, 17, of Tahlequah; Kaley Teehee, 17, of Tahlequah; Morgan Mouse, 16, of Welling; Ashton Shelley, 17, of Park Hill; Summer Eubanks, 17, of Stilwell; Elizabeth Hummingbird, 17, of Stilwell; Sarah Pilcher, 16, of Westville; Cierra Fields, 15, of Fort Gibson; Blake Henson, 16, of Fort Gibson; Bradley Fields, 15, of Locust Grove; Ashlee Fox, 17, of Bartlesville; Abigail Shepherd, 15, of Ochelata; and Cassidy Henderson, 15, of Welch. The TYC was established in 1989 to provide leadership opportunities for Cherokee youth and to educate youth about the tribal government, culture, history and language. “It’s a wonderful opportunity and a true privilege to serve on the Youth Council,” Principal Chief Bill John Baker said. During the meeting, Baker presented a framed proclamation to former Tribal Youth Councilor and current TYC Coordinator Lisa Trice-Turtle and other former Tribal Youth Councilors. The proclamation honors the 25th anniversary of the council, which officially formed Oct. 14, 1989. Baker read the proclamation, which stated the program has kept “the Cherokee Nation in the forefront of youth programs.” “The Tribal Youth Council strives to promote and protect Cherokee lifeways through community service projects and leadership opportunities, it has made a difference in the lives of hundreds of youth. Now therefore, I, Bill John Baker, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, do hereby proclaim Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014, as celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Youth Council,” Baker read. Trice-Turtle thanked current and past Tribal Councilors for supporting the TYC. “Some of their children and relatives are now on the Tribal Youth Council or have served on the Tribal Youth Council. We have over 161 former Tribal Youth Council members who are in professional employment for the Cherokee Nation as well as the private sector. I just want to say thank you for supporting our tribal youth programs and keep supporting us,” she said. Hummingbird said she wanted to join the council to be more involved with her nation. “I’m proud of my culture and just love to have this opportunity to learn more about my culture,” she said. She said wants to learn how the Tribal Council operates and what the council does during meetings. A Keys High School senior, Shelley said she believes it’s important for youth to be involved in their nation and to support it because the youth will someday inherit the CN. “I just want to learn everything I possibly can from our elders and just everyone involved with the council,” she said. “I believe this experience will help me go further in life in general, not just in college, but everything.”
BY STAFF REPORTS
10/20/2014 11:50 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The Tahlequah Public Schools Foundation is hosting its 2014 Glow Golf Fall Event on Oct. 30 to raise funds for TPS. The event is a four-member team golf scramble with teams teeing off at dusk on the city’s course located at 2200 W. Golf Course Road. Registration for begins at 6 p.m. Sponsorship levels are diamond at $2,500; platinum at $1,000; gold at $500; team at $300 and media at $200. Most packages include four T-shirts, glow golf materials, a flashlight, dinner and drinks. According to its website, the foundation’s mission is to encourage the local community to support the TPS educational system, secure contributions and distribute funds and equipment for the students’ educational benefit. The website states the TPSF was organized in 1989 by concerned citizens who believe Tahlequah’s quality of life and economic development are directly related to the quality of its educational system. It is an independent, nonprofit, charitable organization established to assist the school in improving the quality of education in the district. The foundation is separate from TPS but works closely with the school system and administration. For more information about the golf scramble, call 918-456-3761 or 918-456-1300. Or email <a href="mailto: healthfirstchiropractic@yahoo.com">healthfirstchiropractic@yahoo.com</a>.