Judge is poised to ‘adjust gerrymandering with gerrymandering,’ giving Navajos an edge in southern Utah county

Whites have controlled local government in San Juan County for a century with little native representation.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Mark Maryboy, former San Juan County Commissioner, in Bluff, Friday June 9, 2017.

History may be in the making in San Juan County this week when a judge holds hearings that could place the Navajo community in the political driver’s seat — a stark departure from the past century dominated by Anglos.

On Thursday, federal Judge Robert Shelby will hold public hearings in Monticello at 10:30 a.m. and Bluff at 3:30 p.m. regarding several map proposals — all of which most likely would lead to Navajos holding majorities on the two most powerful government bodies in the county.

The proposals would redraw voting districts to ensure significant American Indian majorities in two of three County Commission districts and on four of five school board voting districts.

Such an outcome would be the result of a January 2012 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by the Navajo Nation. That lawsuit seeks the redrawing of voting districts to reflect the 2010 U.S. Census.

| Courtesy Photo U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby.

The suit, filed in Salt Lake City, alleges that San Juan County is in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and the 1973 Voting Rights Act by ensuring that non-Indian voters hold majorities on the commission and school boards.

Last year, Shelby ruled the voting districts in the sprawling southeast Utah county, which today is home to 16,895 residents, are unconstitutional and violate the rights of American Indians. He ordered the country to redraw them.

In June, he declared the county’s new proposals did not meet legal mandates. Shelby then appointed what’s called a “special manager” to redraw them.

The county is at least 50 percent American Indian and 47 percent white.

The existing voting districts in San Juan County were drawn to benefit Anglos, wrote Bernard Grofman, a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, whom Shelby appointed to propose new ones.

“It became clear that race had affected the configuration of the entire three-district map in the case of the County Commission, and strongly affected four districts of five districts in the case of the school board,” Grofman’s report said. “As a consequence, these preliminary conceptual maps make substantial changes from those proposed by the county both for the County Commission maps and the school board maps.”

FILE - In this June 23, 2016, photo, a sign is shown near Blanding, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Previously, Commissioner Bruce Adams said the allegations outlined in the lawsuit are not true.

“The system we have now works well,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune soon after the suit was filed, “and it guarantees that there is at least one Native American on the commission.”

Former Blanding Mayor Toni Turk said the proposals are a foregone conclusion and the hearings are no more than window dressing.

“What they are trying to do is adjust gerrymandering with gerrymandering,” Turk said.

The outcome, he warned, will create new problems.

Turk pointed to other possible solutions, such as having all seats run “at large” or dividing the county in two along the banks of the San Juan River, which also is the boundary for the Navajo Nation, to give Utah a 30th county.

San Juan County’s partisan commission once was elected at large. The three commission districts were created as part of a 1984 federal court consent decree — the outcome of an earlier court battle by Navajos to gain representation on the panel.

Mark Maryboy became the first Navajo elected to the commission and took office in the mid-1980s. He served four terms. His brother Kenneth Maryboy was then elected to that District 3 seat and served for two terms.

Rebecca Benally now holds what has become the Navajo seat. Adams represents District 1, and Phil Lyman hails from District 2.

Mark Maryboy, a plaintiff in the current lawsuit, said he could not comment on the pending case. He did say, however, that when he was on the commission, most of his proposals for upgrades in the Navajo community were voted down by the two Anglo commissioners.

“At that time, we had no library and few paved roads,” Maryboy said Monday. “I wanted better public safety and better recreation [facilities].”

But Adams and others have argued for decades that Navajos living within the Navajo Nation in San Juan County do not pay property taxes. It isn’t fair, they said, that Navajos should be in charge of a budget that depends on property taxes.

Nonetheless, in an expert witness report in the lawsuit, Daniel McCool, a professor of political science at the University of Utah, said millions in federal aid designated for Indian services is a “cash cow” for San Juan County.

The 216-page report lists a history of discrimination against the Navajos and exclusion of native peoples from the “candidate slating process.”

In 1990, environmentalist and activist Ken Sleight was chairman of the San Juan County Democratic Party and joined forces with Maryboy to put a Navajo candidate on the ballot for every county office.

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune With Blanding in the background, a home in the Westwater Navajo community is photographed Wednesday August 18, 2010. The roughly two-dozen Navajo residents of Westwater, many who are elderly, live without running water, plumbing, sewage disposal or electricity.

“We wanted to get better representation for better roads and more schools on the reservation,” Sleight recalled Monday.

An active group of Democrats ramped up a voter-registration drive across the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation. It has always been difficult to get Navajos from faraway locals to the voting booth, Sleight said. On Election Day in 1990, a big snowstorm rolled in, he recalled, and made it much worse than normal.

“It didn’t work too well,” he said. “We weren’t successful.”

McCool’s report cites various facets of discrimination: cultural, social, economic and political.

“If we zero in on political equality, we find that the white majority has a history of voting as a group to usually defeat the Indians’ preferred candidate,” the report stated. “[This] largely describes the entire political history of the county.”

No date has been set for Shelby’s decision on the matter.

THURSDAY’S HEARINGS<br>Monticello: Hideout Community Center, 49 W. 600 South, at 10:30 a .m.<br>Bluff: Bluff Community Center, 3rd East and Mulberry, at 3:30 p.m.

CORRECTION: A information box on this story said incorrectly said the hearings are Tuesday. The hearings are Thursday, Nov. 16.