Cherokee Nation officials told not to violate tribe's open meeting law

Cherokee Nation officials didn't criminally violate the tribe's open meeting law when they met secretly to discuss its budget in August, tribal Attorney General Diane Hammons concluded recently.

But she doesn't want them doing it again without posting the proper notice and agenda required by the statute.

The Cherokee Nation Freedom of Information Act, enacted in 2001, requires public bodies to post agendas 10 days in advance of regular meetings and 24 hours head of special meetings.

An investigation by Hammons' office found that no meeting notice or agenda had been posted for the budget meeting between "no less than" 10 Tribal Council members and Principal Chief Chad Smith.

Council members "generally seen as philosophically aligned with the Principal Chief" were invited via e-mail to the meeting, Hammons said in a written opinion Feb. 5.

(The opinion is available through the Cherokee Phoenix Web site.)

The council members constituted a quorum of the council's Executive and Finance Committee, the opinion said.

However, Hammons said the tribe's open meeting law requires that violations must have been "committed both willfully and maliciously."

Therefore, she said in the opinion, the meeting did not constitute a criminal violation because the participants didn't believe they were violating the tribe's Freedom of Information Act.

Not everyone on the Tribal Council agrees with Hammons' conclusion.

“With all respect to the AG, the conduct of the meeting was, in my view, ‘willful’ and the secretive nature of it strikes me as being borne of malice towards the people’s right to know,” said one of the three Tribal Council members who requested the opinion.

Chuck Hoskin Jr. told the Tahlequah Daily Press that he believes Smith is well-aware of the rules and chose to disregard them.

“The AG’s investigation confirms, sadly, that the administration is willing to thumb its nose at the public when it comes to how the tribe spends the people’s money,” Hoskin said.

The newspaper reported that the tribal councilors calling for the investigation were appalled when they learned of the meeting.

“The idea that the administration would summon a majority of our budget-writing committee to hash out the annual budget in a room at the casino with no public notice was outrageous,” Councilor Jodie Fishinghawk told the newspaper.

Sure seems as though the statute leaves Cherokee Nation officials with an easy defense when they're accused of conducting an illegal meeting: Nope, we didn't think we were breaking the law.

(Read Tulsa World coverage of Hammons' opinion.)

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Journalism

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.