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Cherokee Editorial Board ordinance withdrawn: Council, chiefs will retain appointments

Cherokee One Feather Editor Robert Jumper discusses proposed changes to the Editorial Board ordinance with Tribal Council during a Nov. 21 work session. Cherokee One Feather Editor Robert Jumper discusses proposed changes to the Editorial Board ordinance with Tribal Council during a Nov. 21 work session. EBCI image

An ordinance seeking to change the makeup of the Cherokee One Feather’s editorial board made it back in front of Tribal Council on Thursday, Dec. 7, following a lengthy work session held Nov. 21.

But One Feather Editor Robert Jumper, who had submitted the legislation, immediately asked that it be withdrawn. 

“With the level of disagreement with the direction that the Editorial Board was going, we decided to withdraw rather than have it killed or modified into something that might not provide the benefit that we were seeking,” Jumper told The Smoky Mountain News via email.

The Editorial Board, which is enshrined in tribal law, is charged with developing written guidelines and policies for materials published in the tribally owned Cherokee One Feather. Under current law, the board is made up of One Feather staff members, one member appointed jointly by the chief and vice chief, one member appointed by Tribal Council and a staff member from the Office of the Attorney General. Board members serve indefinitely but can be removed for cause by a majority vote of the remaining member.

The ordinance, first introduced to Tribal Council in November, sought to eliminate the two chief and Tribal Council appointees and replace them with four community members, two appointed by the sitting board and two by the Cherokee Community Club Council.

“The goal of our request is to have more community involvement,” Jumper told Tribal Council Nov. 21. “It’s not uncommon in newspapers and media outlets to have the staff be the board that does that [editorial] direction. But in our case, we’re owned by the tribe, so we want our community involved in those decisions.”

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The Editorial Board ordinance was last revised in 2018. That revision took the tribe’s director of marketing and public relations off the roster and gave the executive and legislative branches one appointment each. Additionally, at that time, language was removed from the ordinance requiring that “all news articles, editorials or other matters dealing with controversial subjects shall be submitted to the editorial board for consideration and approval prior to publication.”

“We had good intentions, but it wasn’t a good plan,” Jumper said of the 2018 revision. “I think you guys [on Tribal Council] are so good and studious in your deliberation of the code, and what we did was basically infuse politics into the board. It wasn’t a good fit for The One Feather because [Cherokee Code Chapter] 75 says we shouldn’t be politically influenced.”

Painttown Rep. Dike Sneed asked Jumper whether any Council member had ever attempted to coerce him to do anything he believed to be wrong following the 2018 revision. Jumper said no such thing has happened, but that that’s not the point.

“It’s not that direct influence that we’re really concerned about because it would be a very public influence,” he said. “It’s more the subtle things of maybe appointing someone that might be able to be fed direction, for example. Perceptions are as bad as fact in the media, so people can be not doing anything bad at all, but the perception of it will kill them. So what we want to do is avoid any perception of political influence.”

Big Cove Rep. Richard French was the first Council member to offer feedback. He said he wasn’t against the substance of the proposal but that he couldn’t vote in favor until the ordinance included language outlining the process the Community Club Council would use to make its appointments.

“I would have to agree with Richard on that,” said Birdtown Rep. Boyd Owle. “Any time you have a position out there or a board or something like that, you got all kind of people that apply for it from the community there. Some are certainly qualified for it, and some are not … of course you want the best person for the position, and you got to have qualifications for it.”

Jumper explained that he hadn’t written any such stipulations into the ordinance because The One Feather wanted the Community Club Council to select people they felt might best represent tribal members — that might mean they have a master’s degree in journalism, but it also might mean they’re simply wise, connected members of the community.

“That was why we asked to set aside two seats for the editorial board to select,” he said. “We can determine two seats that they know journalism, they know policies, they know procedures, but what we’re looking for from the Community Club Council is who they think would best represent the community.”

Owle then suggested a significant change to the ordinance that would give the Community Club Council six appointments rather than two, one for each township. Several other Council members voiced support for that idea, and Principal Chief Michell Hicks said it would be “healthy” to give each community a voice on the board.

“I attended the Community Club Council for three hours last night,” he said. “There was a lot of feedback around open communication and continued transparency. I think we have to find avenues to where our people have a voice and their comments and questions are heard. I think those are elements that are important for this process.”

But Jumper balked at the idea of making such a large change so quickly. Owle’s suggestion would bring the board from eight positions to 14.

“We’ve been very, very careful how we build the editorial board,” he said. “It’s not always been functional, and it’s been a chore to get it functional. I would ask that, if we can, to do a more controlled process as we start transitioning that power.”

Joining the Editorial Board is a learning curve, Jumper said, and with so many members, all of whom would be unpaid, it could prove difficult to achieve a quorum as often as required. He suggested adding only two community appointees to start with and considering more next year.

However, that offering did not gain traction on Council.

“I do think it’s a little bit forward to assume you would have an issue with attendance or a quorum without ever seeing this possibility roll out,” said Painttown Rep. Michael Stamper. “If there was a situation where we put this into place and you had zero to six show up, then yeah, concerns would be validated. But just to state that you have those concerns up front before ever hearing anybody, I think that’s a little presumptuous on your part.”

“I appreciate that, Councilman,” Jumper replied. “I have a little over 10 years’ experience trying to build the board, so it’s not coming from my personal opinion, it’s coming from experience. It is a challenge when you have appointees — unpaid appointees — to establish a quorum.”

Rather than risk the ordinance accruing unwanted floor amendments, the Editorial Board chose to request that it be withdrawn from consideration.

“There may be a point in time when expanding to a larger complement on the Board will be appropriate, but it needs to be a reasoned, staggered implementation,” Jumper told SMN. “We will discuss the board makeup further internally and try to come up with a version that will satisfy the Council and meet our goals.”

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