After lengthy discussion, the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council passed amendments to both its Governmental Records Act and its Freedom of Information Act Monday night.
The GRA amendments passed 14-2, with Councilors Cara Cowan Watts and Lee Keener opposing the legislation. The FOIA passed by a narrower margin than in committee, 10-6, with Councilors Watts, Keener, Julia Coates, Don Garvin, Dick Lay and Jack Baker opposing the measures. Councilor Jodie Fishinghawk did not attend the meeting.
Amendments to the laws will:
• Increase the time limit for answering requests by five days. The current time period is 15 days. The amendment also allows an additional 10-day extension, but only after notifying the inquiring party in writing. All totaled, any FOIA request should take no more than 30 working days for a response. GRA responses are required within 10 working days, which was increased from five via friendly amendment.
• Increase protection for tribal citizens’ personal information. Under the new law, every citizen’s Social Security number, date of birth, Cherokee citizenship number, email and other electronic identifiers will be specifically exempted under FOIA.
• Clarify that proprietary bid documents continue to be protected. The law continues to state that a contract is not exempt from disclosure once executed, but bid or other financial documents of the vendors who bid on a project will be protected.
• The creation of an information officer position to serve as a liaison that would help tribal citizens seeking information. The officer would be independent of any political influence and could only be terminated for cause. The individual would be responsible for facilitating, gathering, tracking and responding to FOIA requests, as well as providing monthly updates to the Tribal Council.
Several councilors wanted to reverse the agenda order, voting on FOIA before GRA.
Coates and Watts indicated they believed FOIA to be, in a way, related to GRA.
Attorney General Todd Hembree said it was not.
“FOIA and GRA are separate acts; they each have their own mechanisms,” said Hembree. “Although they both deal with ascertaining records, GRA is specifically for Tribal Council members. If you feel those rights are violated, you have the distinct capability of going to district court. FOIA is for everyone. They are not intertwined; they are two separate acts. One does not necessarily depend on the other.”
The motion to move the items failed.
The next regular meeting of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council will be held at 6 p.m., Monday, July 14, in council chambers at the W.W. Keeler Complex.