Wednesday, September 23, 2020
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A Christmas wish … greater transparency


Politicians often talk about the importance of transparency and accountability, but as we all have seen that often changes when they get into office.

Outgoing Navajo Nation Auditor General Elizabeth Begay always says, “It’s the people’s money, they have a right to know” how it’s being spent.

The auditor general’s office, the government watchdog of the Nation’s finances, is an exception when it comes to transparency. They want to share information and for that we should all be grateful.

However, in Window Rock overall, what I’ve experienced is a government culture of withholding information and disdain for public inquiry, particularly from news reporters.

When requesting information for stories, especially when it comes to finances, employees are often taken aback by questions as if, “Who are we to be asking?” and there aren’t processes in place for them to know how to respond.

Some get downright defensive or even frightened by questions, which, to be honest, is always a cause for suspicion or at least concern.

I always think to myself, who are their managers that employees would feel that way?

The way I see it, it is always those who don’t want to share who will be the first to blame those who are asking. As a reporter, the first sign of possible malfeasance is someone defending their secrecy over government financial matters.

For these reasons, we never really know if or when we’re going to get answers, but that, in some ways, is part of being a reporter. We are expected to keep investigating.

Sometimes, when asking for information, we are told to submit a written request for public records. Other times we might be referred someone like point-man Mihio Manus, communications director in the president’s office, who is in charge of information for the executive branch and appears to spend more time deflecting questions than actually answering them.

I know when I hear the words, “Go ask Mihio,” I’ll be facing the proverbial “brick wall.” That directive, by the way, comes straight from the top. I have spoken to folks at all levels of government who are afraid to “undermine” President Russell Begaye’s authority.

Manus’ main job is to serve as the PR vehicle for Begaye, which, OK, is part of his job. But responding to public inquiries with actual facts should ideally also be a top priority.

Manus once suggested to me, as if genuinely incredulous by my questions, that transparency has never really been a thing in Navajo Nation government. In other words, I shouldn’t expect it.

The president’s office itself, under Begaye, feels more like a private club and those who don’t belong or are otherwise considered outsiders to the office are made to feel like they are an imposition for asking questions.

I, myself, have been accused of not understanding protocols or etiquette, been called rude and pushy, and have been shut out of meetings, as a way to discouraging me from persisting.

Mostly, there is little effort made at the president’s office to work with the news media or honor requests, at least not in a timely fashion. Instead, we are treated as if we are a pest or a burden, interfering with their “business-as-usual” attitudes.

It is they who have lost sight of professional protocols and the fact that they serve at the pleasure of the Navajo people.

However, I will not be discouraged. It’s my job to seek out the truth in government affairs.

The controller’s office and the attorney general’s office are particularly challenging to get information out of and they appear to serve the interests of president’s office first.

I have submitted requests for information to the controller with zero response. The attorney general recently denied (after taking 90 days to respond) a request for information about a particular vendor contract in the president’s office, saying her office cannot comply due to “attorney-client privilege” with the president.

Must. Be. Nice.

The speaker’s office is better when it comes to answering questions. While we might not always get the answers we need, at least they are responsive and have a staff that welcomes people into the office.

Council delegates are also usually approachable in person, but there is room for improvement there, too, in terms of facilitating more expedient communications regarding questions over legislation.

Occasionally, there is an exception from someone with a conscience, such as a PIO, division director, or front desk employee who feels compelled to respond in a professional manner, who would rather be perceived as forthcoming than withholding, which is incredibly refreshing, but unfortunately not the norm.

I share this now because there is a real opportunity ahead of us with the incoming administration.

President-elect Jonathan Nez has always stressed that the president’s office is “the people’s office,” that he has an “open-door” policy, and that he wants to bring respect and accountability back to the office.

That is really important because how the public and news media are treated is ultimately established at the leadership level and can have influence all across the Nation, from receptionists to division directors and program managers to chapter officials.

The people have a right to transparency, but they also have to demand it. They have a right to walk into a government office and ask for information if they need it and not feel intimidated. They have a right to be treated with respect and decency and a customer-service orientation.

Transparency is commonly defined as the “quality of being easily seen through.” The bottom line is that a government’s actions should be scrupulous enough to withstand public scrutiny, right? Let’s encourage support for “sunshine” laws and whistle-blower protections and call out abuses of things like “executive session,” where decisions are made behind closed doors with no available public record.

President-elect Nez says he wants to work proactively with the news media, hold press conferences, encourage a better flow of communication, and establish processes and protocols for sharing information throughout government.

Of the Nez-Lizer team, he said, “We will do our very best to keep the Navajo people informed. We want to bring trust back to our Navajo Nation government.”

As demonstrated by dozens of visits to local communities during the election, Nez puts a priority on listening to the needs of the people.

Nez can also set the tone for the administration to be more open, from top to bottom, and let a little more light shine in.

He says that’s a priority for the Nez-Lizer team.

I believe he means it. Let’s do this!

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