By Sunnie Clahchischiligi
On May 14 I put on my most professional looking outfit, grabbed my notebooks, handful of pens and recorder then headed out to cover my first school board meeting on the Navajo reservation.
Being a sports writer most of my career it’s never really been my area to attend a board meeting or really any meeting for that matter, but there was something different about this one.
In April, I read about a meeting the board had. It was tense, over the top and very interesting, which surprised me.
But it wasn’t interesting in a good way. The comments under the online article stated that there was more to the meeting, that the reporter only got the good things from the meeting. Naturally I’d ignore those comments as most are from people who know nothing about what’s going on, but this one stuck.
So, I marked my calendar for the next meeting and decided to see for myself.
The beginning of the meeting was fairly normal. Reports were made, presentations were given and some public comments were made.
But things started to heat up after the presentations.
A parent asked to speak in the middle of the presentations and the school board president didn’t allow it because the portion for public comments had passed.
Two board members asked the president to let the woman speak but she repeatedly reminded them that it was her decision as the board president. The president had the right to refuse the woman to speak but she could have done so in a less-aggressive manner, which she chose not to do.
Did I mention two high school students were present during this debacle? Two students and their teacher were waiting to give a presentation to the board and they too had to see what the people who are supposed to be working for their education were acting like instead.
The Navajo people wonder why their children lack interest in their government, being one of those young children at one time; I can honestly tell you that it’s because of things like this.
We hear about our leaders taking money that isn’t theirs, about them fighting for the wrong reasons and see how they take advantage of their people. How can we expect for young Navajo adults to come back and work for their people when this is the kind of stuff they have welcoming them back?
It was a disheartening experience to sit and listen to this, but there’s more.
As a journalists we are taught about the various do’s and don’ts that come with the job. We are also taught how to protect ourselves as journalists when hairy situations arise.
After the parent-president situation, the administrative assistant for the board, I assume, must have finally noticed my digital recorder (which was on the entire portion of the public meeting), and went up to the president to let her know that I was recording.
In the middle of a presentation the president made an announcement that the school records the meetings and that everyone shut off any recorders.
Being that the portions of the meeting that I was recording were public, I felt this did not apply to me, so I continued recording.
The meeting soon ended and as I walked out the door I was approached by a woman (who was later put on administrative leave) and asked to “delete” my recording of the meeting.
I asked why, and said that I had a right to record as it was a public meeting (the board had not gone into executive session).
She said it was not a public meeting. I replied by asking her that if it wasn’t public then why was it advertised as a public meeting and why did it say open for public comment on the agenda?
The woman then threatened me, requesting that I wait there while she went to get the school lawyer.
I was told that the lawyer wasn’t even there. I also knew I had a right to be there according to the Opens Meetings Act, which applies to school board meetings held at the federally-funded school that I was at.
As I chose not to wait and continued walking to my vehicle, the same woman then sent a security guard after me who followed me just about the whole way to my car.
The security guard kept trying to get my attention and I eventually turned to ask what he needed and he said the woman needed to speak to me.
I told him I had nothing to say and that I had a right to be at the meeting, not to mention that what I recorded was public so there is not reason my recorder should be taken away. So he walked away.
As I left the parking lot I realized that the Open Meetings Act meant nothing to the woman or any official on the reservation. Because on Navajoland the only act or law that matters is what a leader or organization decides.
I threw the Open Meetings Act at them and they threw a lawyer back at me. I threw the First Amendment at them and they threw the security guard back at me.
After thinking about it the last couple of days I’ve realized that the reservation is no man’s land for this very reason. People, reporters don’t want to be treated this way so they chose not to attend.
But it’s the opposite for me. If I know I have a right as a journalist to be there, I will be there. A couple of threats aren’t enough to keep me from doing what I was trained and educated to do.
So, when another meeting comes around I will put on my most professional looking outfit; grab my notebook, a handful of pens and my recorder.