The San Juan County Commission held its first meeting in the Navajo Nation. Local residents were grateful for the chance to have a voice.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Montezuma Creek resident Sam Dee addresses the San Juan County Commission in Oljato-Monument Valley, Utah, on Tuesday, July 2, 2019.

Oljato • The unincorporated community of Oljato sits beneath the iconic sandstone monoliths of Monument Valley, which draw millions of visitors from around the globe each year to this remote part of the Navajo Nation.

The valley, just north of the Arizona-Utah state line, generates more tax revenue from tourists than any other town in San Juan County, including Bluff, the self-proclaimed “Gateway to Bears Ears National Monument.” And according to census estimates, Oljato-Monument Valley is home to nearly 1,000 people, making it the third-largest population center in the county behind Blanding and Monticello.

Yet when the San Juan County Commission held its first regular commission meeting in the area Tuesday, local attendees repeatedly called the visit from the commission “historic.”

James Adakai, the president of the Oljato Chapter of the Navajo Nation, said, “We’ve been waiting a long time for this. Historically, the commission has been absent.”

“Since redistricting we’ve been seeing changes,” Adakai, San Juan County Democratic chairman, added, referring to a 2017 voting rights decision and special election that brought Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy onto the first majority-Navajo commission in San Juan County.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) San Juan County Commissioners Bruce Adams (left), Kenneth Maryboy, and Willie Grayeyes preside over the commission meeting in Oljato-Monument Valley, Utah, on Tuesday, July 2, 2019.

Grayeyes and Maryboy passed a resolution in May that set the stage for holding every third commission meeting away from the county seat of Monticello on a rotating basis. San Juan County is the largest in the state and Oljato-Monument Valley — site of the first away meeting — is more than 90 miles from Monticello.

Maryboy welcomed the attendees to the Navajo Nation near the beginning of the meeting, with folks filing in over its three-hour length until approximately 70 people sat in metal chairs or stood shoulder-to-shoulder against the walls. Volunteers passed out trays of coffee in styrofoam cups while the smell of cooking fry bread drifted through the audience.

Commission meetings typically begin with a prayer and Roy V. Smith of Monument Valley asked to lead Tuesday’s invocation. He spoke in both Navajo and English, asking for blessings for “the two groups of ... five-finger people: the Native and the visitor that came.”

“Let’s plan together and unite with ideas,” Smith said.

The commissioners heard presentations on county marketing and promotion initiatives partially funded by the transient room tax dollars generated in Oljato-Monument Valley.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) San Juan County Commission meeting in Oljato-Monument Valley, Utah, on Tuesday, July 2, 2019.

David Everitt, interim county administrator, briefed the commission on issues related to the county’s declining general fund, driven in part by millions of dollars in legal fees racked up under the past county commission.

Grayeyes and Maryboy reported on a meeting they held last week with the San Juan County Road Department and the Navajo Nation Department of Transportation to try working out an intergovernmental agreement so San Juan County can resume road maintenance on the reservation, which stalled out last fall due to right-of-way disputes.

Lorissa Jackson, a teacher at Monument Valley High School, said she was glad roads were mentioned at the meeting and that people were able to voice other concerns. “We’ve been underrepresented for a long time,” she said. “Having a voice in community meetings and actions is very important. We are citizens of this county. We are voters and we are taxpayers.”

But not everyone in attendance supported the new county policy to hold meetings outside of Monticello. Wendy Black, a resident of Blanding who ran for the commission and lost in last year’s Republican primary, questioned whether rotating meetings were an appropriate use of county resources.

“County employees are traveling and putting unnecessary miles on their vehicles, unnecessary fuel costs, and … they’re sitting here for hours rather than going back to work. And all of this is being put onto the taxpayers,” Black said during the public comment period. She went on to ask whether the sheriff had jurisdiction on the Navajo Nation and requested the commission for a cost analysis of the meetings.

Alastair Bitsóí, communications director for Utah Diné Bikéyah, referred to Black’s remarks in a later public comment. He said the meetings allow for the experience of reciprocity. “I’m glad Wendy came all the way from Blanding,” Bitsóí said. “Now you get to experience what it feels like for residents [from Monument Valley] to go all the way over there.”

Multiple residents spoke out about a lack of water infrastructure and one man from Montezuma Creek asked whether oil and gas royalties generated on tribal lands could be used to build recreation centers on the Navajo Nation to give youth a place to go during hot summer months.

“Roads, water, health care, education. Those are things we aren’t always able to speak to, so having these commission meetings abroad in San Juan County is a next step for us working together,” said Davina Smith of Monument Valley. “Why are we here today? It’s because we’re finally able to be heard.”

Maryboy, who originally proposed the rotating meetings resolution, said he was pleased with the first attempt to implement the policy. “It’s good to see our grandmas sitting here. Grandmas like that usually ask me, ‘What the heck is a commission meeting?’” Maryboy said to laughter from the audience. “Now she gets to see that firsthand, which is really good.”

As the meeting adjourned and attendees shuffled into line for fry bread, mutton stew and melon served free of charge in the meeting room, Adakai said he hopes even more people will attend the commission’s next visit.

“It’s very significant for the people to be able to participate in the democratic process by having access to the county commission,” Adakai said.

Future commission meetings are being scheduled in Navajo Mountain, Mexican Water and Aneth on the Navajo Nation, and Bluff, Blanding and Spanish Valley to the north.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune.