FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. » Navajo voters can cast ballots to decide whether to reduce the size of the Tribal Council and give the tribal president line-item veto authority, the Navajo Supreme Court ruled late Thursday.
Less than a handful of ballot initiatives have been attempted on the vast reservation. This will be the first to go before voters, who will have a chance to tweak the structure of their government that was forced upon them some 85 years ago.
"It is a judgment on behalf of the people and their inalienable right to participate and have a say in how their government is structured, how it works and how the people's resources are used," said Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr., who led the measures.
The Supreme Court justices upheld a decision by tribal Judge Carol Perry, who was appointed as a hearing officer in the case after months of delay. She ordered an election held before the end of the year.
"It's easy to predict the Navajo people will vote in the affirmative on both of these initiatives, but that doesn't mean it's automatic," said George Hardeen, a spokesman Shirley. "The people will have to be educated on why this is necessary and be persuaded this is the way to go."
The Office of the Speaker likely will embark on a campaign of its own to convince tribal members to vote against the initiatives. A spokesman did not immediately return a message left late Thursday night.
Shirley started an effort to reduce the Tribal Council from 88 delegates to 24 and give the president line-item veto authority in April 2008. He pitched the initiatives as a way to reform the tribal government and cut down on what he said was out-of-control spending by the council.
But he immediately drew critics who saw his efforts as less than sincere and who said he unfairly was targeting the legislative branch and trying to cheat small communities out of representation.
"There's no argument, there's no evidence that anything he says reduction will do will ever come to be," said Andrew Curley, a 27-year-old vocal critic of council reduction. "I see it as a knee-jerk reactionary solution on the part of the president on issues that are unclear."
Reducing the number of delegates would save money, Curley said, "but it doesn't mean that they spend more efficiently."
Petition circulators gathered more than the required number of signatures for the two initiatives -- 16,530 or 15 percent of the 110,000 registered Navajo voters -- but elections officials said in November that not enough were valid.
Shirley filed an administrative appeal, and Perry ruled that elections officials used conflicting and ambiguous statutes to disqualify petition signatures and allowed both initiatives to go forward.
The election administration maintained the signature requirements weren't met and that Perry had no right to invalidate the tribe's election laws.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Monday, along with a request by the appellant to disqualify the justices, which was denied.
Although the elections office originally stated that the signatures to reduce the council fell short, Director Edison Wauneka testified at a May hearing that the number had exceeded the requirement by more than 360. Both parties agreed to the numbers, and Perry granted summary judgment in favor of Shirley.
The elections office and its attorney, Ron Haven, argued to the Supreme Court that Perry failed to give them an opportunity to rebut the number they said was likely a miscalculation.
But the Supreme Court justices said because the numbers had been stipulated, there is a presumption that those results are correct.
"It would be absurd to allow the NEA to now attack its own results and present new figures at the eleventh hour," the justices wrote.
The justices, however, said they could not determine whether the line-item veto initiative had enough valid signatures and differed in their reasoning for upholding the previous decision.
They said Navajo case law does not address the situation, but they said errors in signatures that do not demonstrate malice or an intent to defraud the process should not be fatal to the signer.
The justices found that the petition committee acted in good faith and followed the rules as best as it could, given a lack of clear directives from elections officials.
"There has been a failure by the regulatory body to implement the law through proper guidelines and standards," the justices wrote. "This systematic failure to execute statutory responsibilities should not delay the people's participation in their government."