Monticello • Willie Grayeyes was 9 years old when Utah granted American Indians living on reservations the right to vote. It was the last state to do so.
The year was 1957 and the state Legislature expanded the vote to Native Americans in the face of a pending U.S. Supreme Court case on the issue. Just a year earlier, the Utah Supreme Court upheld the view that American Indians on reservations were not residents of the state and therefore couldn’t vote in state elections.
Justices argued that such a grant “might place substantial control of the county government and the expenditures of its funds in a group of citizens who, as a class, had an extremely limited interest in its functions and very little responsibility in providing the financial support thereof.”
It’s a sentiment still expressed by some, only now directed at the fact that San Juan County has its first majority-Navajo commission.
Grayeyes, now 71, occupies one seat and Kenneth Maryboy another after last year’s court-ordered special election. Bruce Adams, now in his 15th year on the commission, is the third member.
Commission meetings have been raucous affairs since Grayeyes and Maryboy took office in January. At times, 100 people have been in attendance as commissioners have passed a flurry of resolutions that dramatically departs from policies set by previous commissions.
Grayeyes and Maryboy, both Democrats, reversed the county’s official position on Bears Ears National Monument and have withdrawn from a lawsuit that sided with President Donald Trump’s action to dramatically shrink it in 2017. To the contrary, Grayeyes and Maryboy want to expand the monument beyond the 1.3 million acres originally designated by President Barack Obama.
In other actions, they’ve moved to livestream the commission meetings on Facebook, and they’ve begun holding occasional commission meetings on the Navajo Nation.
It hasn’t all gone smoothly. Far from it.
Accusations and arguments
They’ve been accused of violating open records and public meetings laws, of having conflicts of interest and of discriminating against white county residents. The county administrator resigned abruptly, with both sides blaming the other.
Public comment sessions sometimes last an hour. Meetings have dragged on for as long as six, with residents lining up to make their concerns heard or shouting them from the audience. Sheriff’s deputies routinely have to ask audience members to not speak out of turn.
Grayeyes said he has learned to take the outbursts with patience. “People say, ‘How can you stand it?’ And I say, ‘No, it’s not for me. It’s for them to release their anger. It’s a healing process.’ If I respond to them in the same negative way, then I’d just add to the behavior.”
Adams, a Republican and the longest serving member of the commission, has tended to vote against the resolutions proposed by his two colleagues, and he’s aired a number of complaints.
“The other two commissioners don’t seem to want to abide by the law,” Adams said. “I’ve never had that trouble before. They’ve blatantly broken the Open Meetings Act on two or three occasions that I know of — and maybe more than that.”
(Adams didn’t mention the misdemeanor conviction of a former colleague on a charge of leading an ATV protest on protected federal land.)
While he said there has been “dramatic change” in the past six months, Adams said it has not resulted in anything he would consider an accomplishment.
“For me," he said, “everything has been pretty negative.”
Tara Benally, a citizen of the Navajo Nation who ran against Maryboy in the Democratic primary and now works as field director for the Rural Utah Project, has a rosier view of the developments.
She points to strides the new commissioners have made in bringing the meetings south, their receptiveness to the concerns of Anglo residents in Spanish Valley and their efforts to improve broadband access and roads on the reservation.
“For a full decade, things were at a standstill [with roads and other improvements],” Benally said. “Everybody had a solution, but nobody was making the effort to move things forward. But I feel like in the last few months, Kenneth and Willie have sat down and looked into these issues and have really tried to make something happen.”
Court rulings and county politics
The path to the first majority-Navajo commission was a long and litigious one.
In 1983, the Department of Justice brought suit against San Juan County under the Voting Rights Act, alleging the county’s use of at-large voting diluted the Native American vote. According to data from the 1980 census, the county was over 45 percent Native American, yet only Anglos had ever served on the County Commission.
The county settled with the DOJ the next year, agreeing to elect its commissioners and school board by single-member districts, a similar outcome to many voting rights cases in the American South. After voters approved the new districts in 1984, Mark Maryboy, brother of Kenneth Maryboy, became the first Navajo elected to the commission.
The next three census counts showed the number of Native American residents climbing. Anglos have accounted for less than 50% of the population since at least 1990, making San Juan the only county in Utah where whites are in the minority. But the districts drawn in 1984 gave Anglos a significant advantage in two of the three commission districts, and they remained largely untouched for decades, prompting another lawsuit brought by the Navajo Nation in 2012.
State Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, sat on the San Juan County Commission until last year. He agreed with the Navajo Nation’s assertion that the districts were unfair, but he said there was little the commission could do. Because of the 1984 decree, he said, “the federal courts are responsible for the districts in the county.... I agree it was unconstitutional. It was packed. The problem is our hands were tied.”
Adams has a similar take on the situation. “It seems like the court is in charge of the districts and the election process in San Juan County,” he said.
Attorney Steven Boos, who represented the Navajo Nation in the case, disputes that assessment. The 1984 decree required the county only to change from at-large election of the commission to a system of three districts, Boos wrote in an email. It didn’t make those districts “immune from the constitutional requirement that boundaries be redrawn” every 10 years to reflect changes in the population.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby agreed.
“San Juan County is not frozen in time, and neither are the interests and attitudes of its citizens,” he said in his 2017 ruling against what he called racially gerrymandered districts.
Because of the county’s failure to act, he brought in a special master to redraw the commission and school districts, which resulted in two majority-Navajo districts, and ordered last year’s special election.
The new voting maps divide the county’s largest town, Blanding, into three commission districts, which City Councilwoman Cheryl Bowers said has effectively disenfranchised its residents.
“Personally, I think it’s illegal,” Bowers said. “I don’t think we have anyone [on the commission] who’s really looking out for Blanding specifically.”
At over 5 million acres, San Juan County is Utah’s largest county by geography, and 60% of it is federal land. Another 25% is tribal land in the Navajo Nation and inholdings of the Ute Mountain Ute reservation. A mere 8% is private.
At the same time the voting rights case played out in the courts, from 2012 to 2017, momentum was growing for a proposal from five Native American tribes with ancestral ties to San Juan County, including the Diné (Navajo) and Ute Mountain Utes, to create a 1.9 milllion-acre Bears Ears National Monument in the archaeologically rich lands stretching from Canyonlands National Park to the San Juan River.
In the waning days of Obama’s second term, he signed an executive order designating a smaller — but still massive — 1.3 million-acre monument under the Antiquities Act.
Lyman sees the two developments as connected. “The whole frustration with redistricting and the lawsuits against San Juan County is that they weren’t genuine. They were coming from an agenda-driven group. The people making policy decisions for San Juan County are, you know, Steven Boos and Robert Shelby, Patagonia and Leonardo DiCaprio,” he said, referring to millions of dollars donated by Patagonia and a foundation managed by DiCaprio to the Bears Ears campaign.
Both Maryboy and Grayeyes sat on the board of the pro-Bears Ears group Utah Diné Bikéyah before the 2018 election and resigned before taking office. Both campaigned on a pro-Bears Ears platform.
Lyman takes offense at the notion that the voting districts before 2017 were drawn along racial lines to keep Anglos in power. “I don’t think that the community is looking at race when they go to vote,” he said. “It’s not that we have three districts; it’s not that we have two Navajo commissioners; it’s not that we even have Bears Ears. It’s that we have people like The Salt Lake Tribune that are pushing a narrative that is a complete fabrication and a lie.”
The lies, according to Lyman, include the idea that the County Commission intentionally disenfranchised Native American voters.
Angelo Baca, a Diné resident of Blanding and cultural resources coordinator for Utah Diné Bikéyah, said the county could have done more before the lawsuit. “Voting issues have always been a problem in the county because the county never prioritized Native American participation and involvement.”
The county’s election practices will be monitored through 2020 under a settlement to a different voting rights lawsuit brought by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission in 2016. The county has agreed to provide more translation services related to voting, to allow election observer oversight and to open more polling places on the Navajo Nation.
This settlement, too, remains controversial.
Monticello resident Shanon Brooks, who recently co-founded the San Juan County Citizens Coalition, suggested to the commission in May that translating ballots was a waste of money. “This is the 21st century,” Brooks said. “Rather than spend limited resources on dual-language voting processes, we might better serve our Navajo residents by using precious funds to provide training to improve English language skills.”
David Everitt, former chief of staff to Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, was hired on an interim basis to replace longtime county administrator Kelly Pehrson, who resigned in April. Everitt has moved quickly to formalize commission policies and procedures, and Adams says some communication issues have improved. Commission meetings have since become uneventful affairs compared to the chaos of the spring.
As Grayeyes described it, “Since April, it has come from high off the top down to a calm.”
Adams says he likes Everitt but still believes he was hired “illegally” without any input from him.
Along with Lyman and Bowers, Adams agrees that Blanding needs to be reunited into a single voting district, and all said they would support returning to an at-large system of voting after the 2020 census. That way, Lyman explained, “you’d have a harder time taking a candidate from one district and forcing him on the whole county.”
Lyman has been supportive of proposals that would make it far easier for counties to split up, including one in the recent legislative session, though he says it isn’t likely to be a priority for him.
The freshman lawmaker bristles anytime someone questions whether race plays a part in his motives.
“If you come out with something and immediately someone calls you a racist," Lyman said, "you have to decide at that point, do I care to get in the mud with these swine?”
He identified his goals for the remainder of his first term in the state House as economic development (San Juan County is the poorest in the state) and helping communities in his district prepare for growth (though most of the seven counties he represents are losing population.)
Adams said he’s working to bring more transparency to the commission and to forge more partnerships between the county and the state.
Grayeyes and Maryboy have been meeting with officials from the Navajo Nation Department of Transportation to improve road conditions on the reservation.
Benally and the Rural Utah Project are working to ensure all eligible voters are able to participate in upcoming elections. In addition to voter registration drives, they are working on an ambitious project to ensure a more accurate count in the 2020 census on the Navajo Nation because most residents don’t have traditional street addresses.
She also hopes the county can begin to move past conflict. “We may have some differences, but we still face the same issues.”
Baca hopes more candidates will be inspired to run now that Maryboy and Grayeyes have broken the glass ceiling.
“To have Native Americans in a position that’s politically significant and demonstrate leadership is a great example of how having two Native commissioners at this historic moment is way overdue,” he said. “There are plenty of indigenous citizens of the state as well as the county that have never considered themselves to be eligible or qualified to be in a position like that.”
For his part, Grayeyes is looking forward to the work ahead, but he said he will keep any accomplishments in perspective.
“If you train a colt to ride, you don’t say, ‘I did that,’” Grayeyes said. “You didn’t do it. You just participated. The horse agreed with your command; that’s it. If the horse wasn’t there, and you weren’t there, there’s nothing.”
Editor’s note • Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune.