San Juan County frustrations spill out in the open with ballot drive and allegations of racism

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) San Juan County commissioners Bruce Adams, Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy discuss some issues after being sworn in at the San Juan County Courthouse in Monticello on Jan. 7, 2019.

San Juan County • Back-to-back town halls held on opposite ends of San Juan County last week highlighted the deep, raw divisions in a community still reeling from voting-rights lawsuits and a court-ordered special election resulting in San Juan’s first majority-Navajo commission.

More than 110 people packed into the Monticello High School auditorium Wednesday night to air complaints and discuss an array of possible changes to the local government, including a proposal to divide the county and a ballot initiative that could increase the size of the three-member commission.

A smaller town hall at the Mexican Water Chapter House on the Navajo Nation on Thursday devolved into a tense shouting match inflamed by accusations of racism. It ended early after former County Commissioner Mark Maryboy, a member of the Navajo Nation, appeared to be escorted by a woman from the room after lobbing charges of discrimination. Maryboy later told The Salt Lake Tribune that he left the room so that he could talk to the woman away from the noise inside.

Race repeatedly was discussed at the less-dramatic Monticello town hall, organized by a new group called the San Juan County Citizens Coalition. It was moderated by Ben Burr, a former staffer for Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who now works as a public lands consultant in Washington County.

Burr led a wide-ranging conversation that wended through the 2017 decision by federal Judge Robert Shelby that found the county to be in violation of the Voting Rights Act for racially gerrymandering its voting districts and his order for last year’s special election that led to the election to the County Commission of Democrats Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy, both members of the Navajo Nation. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Shelby’s decision in July.

Burr also mentioned a January ruling by Judge Don Torgerson of Utah’s 7th District Court, which found Grayeyes was a Utah resident after a lawsuit alleged he lived in Arizona and attempted to have his election victory invalidated.

“Once a judge gets [appointed to] a position, they do have a lot of power, and you guys have been kind of ground zero for a lot of the consequences of that,” Burr told town hall attendees. He later added that the rulings were “very disruptive decisions that have reverberated through this community ... a wound that keeps getting opened.”

Emotional testimonies from community members confirmed the rawness of the political shake-up in San Juan County, and Burr gave tips for “organizing a countermovement.” He also spoke about influencing the judiciary, including letter-writing campaigns to elected officials.

Commissioner Bruce Adams, a Republican from Monticello, took the stage to discuss recent lawsuits and court rulings and disclosed that Shelby, on Wednesday, had ordered the county and the Navajo Nation attorneys into mediation to work out whether the county will pay more than $3 million in attorney fees in the voting rights lawsuit. Adams noted that the fees submitted by the Navajo Nation were about three times higher than the county’s attorney fees in the case.

Anna Tom, a member of the Aneth Chapter of the Navajo Nation, said the allegations made in the lawsuit were unfounded and that Native American citizens had plenty of access to the ballot box if they wanted it.

“Navajos, they tend to lie a lot,” she said. “It’s who we are.”

The voting-rights disputes and the Grayeyes residency case have generated accusations of institutional racism in the county, and Adams defended the way voting districts were drawn before the lawsuit.

“When people start accusing other people of being racist, I always go back to my rule of thumb," Adams said. “If somebody is accusing me of doing something, it’s because they’re the ones that are doing it.”

Finally, Adams defended the county’s decision to hire a high-priced Louisiana law firm to lobby for reductions to Bears Ears National Monument in 2017, which cost taxpayers close to $500,000.

“The three county commissioners made a decision [in late 2016] to go with the guy with the biggest and best gun," he said of the Davillier Law Group. "When you find the best, sometimes it’s expensive.”

Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes attended the meeting to speak about Bears Ears, the court rulings and to announce that he is fundraising for a possible run for governor, though he has yet to make his campaign official.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Graphic created in March 2019 based on one possibility Rep. Phil Lyman proposed for dividing San Juan County. Lyman did not discuss specific proposals at the Aug. 21, 2019, town hall in Monticello.

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, briefly discussed the possibility of splitting San Juan County into two or more counties. “I don’t call it dividing the county,” he said. “I call it creating counties."

Lyman added he was criticized after expressing an openness to the idea in March. A proposal to loosen the rules for breaking up counties was brought forward by Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, but, Lyman said, it was quickly dubbed the “racist Phil Bill.” Lyman argued the proposal was not about race and could help bring government closer to the people.

Coleman later amended her measure so that it would not apply to smaller counties such as San Juan.

While the largest county by geography in the state, San Juan is 13th smallest by population — about 15,500 residents.

Lyman referred to an earlier proposal in the 1990s, when then-Commissioner Mark Maryboy, the first Native American to serve on the County Commission and brother of current Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, joined other San Juan leaders in asking the University of Utah to study a proposal to split the county along the Navajo Nation line. The university found that creating a southern county could economically impair Navajo Nation communities by reducing government revenues on the reservation from about $732 to $472 per person.

Blanding Mayor Joe Lyman took the stage to explain a petition he organized with four other residents, including a member of the Navajo Nation and a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, to initiate a countywide special election in November. Voters will decide whether to form a committee to study a potential change in county government, which could include increasing the number of commissioners to five or seven. If the measure passes, any changes recommended would need to go back on the ballot in 2020.

Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy suggested at a commission meeting earlier in the week that race may play a role in that effort.

“There’s a lot of people who seem to be having a hard time understanding the county having two Native Americans [on the commission]," he said. “I’m still getting texts [from critics] saying they’re going to do whatever they can to make my position miserable.” He also expressed concerns about the special election’s estimated $10,000 price tag.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former San Juan County Commissioner Mark Maryboy speaks at a town hall meeting at the Mexican Water Chapter House on Thursday, August 22, 2019.

His brother, former Commissioner Mark Maryboy, was more inflammatory at the Thursday town hall in Mexican Water, saying the initiative was driven by “racist Mormons.”

“For years and years and years, the white people were the majority county commissioners," he said. "Navajos never complained. ... And now there’s some change, and there’s a constant unrest in Blanding and Monticello.”

Several Navajo residents of McCracken Mesa and several Anglo residents of Blanding objected to Mark Maryboy’s comments, and an argument erupted characterized by increasingly personal attacks. Mark Maryboy suggested Anglo county residents sitting in the room could be members of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, to which a white Blanding man fired back, “You’re a lying Navajo.”

The conflict did not begin to subside until Mark Maryboy left the room with a Mexican Water resident and the meeting was postponed.

A handful of attendees at the meeting, including Anna Tom, April Charley and elder Betty Jones — as well as Wendy Black, Ted Black, Nicole Perkins and Cheryl Bowers, all of Blanding — expressed outrage at Mark Maryboy’s comments and behavior.

Mark Maryboy, a board member of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Utah Diné Bikéyah, did not back down in a Friday interview with The Tribune, saying he believes white supremacy is a problem in the country and in San Juan County. He pointed to inequities in land distribution on the Navajo Nation, the environmental impacts of extractive industries and a lack of job opportunities.

“If you’ve been a county commissioner like me, you know what racism is,” he said, adding that he’s been called a “savage” many times. “I may sound very mean out there, but if you experience those things, I feel like I have the right to respond.”

Bowers, who sits on the Blanding City Council, expressed dismay that the tensions in the county have grown so severe.

The San Juan County Citizens Coalition, of which Bowers is a member, plans to host another town hall meeting in Blanding in October, and residents will vote on the initiative that could begin the process of changing the county government in November.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.