San Juan County residents talk about opening lines of communication to help bridge political divide

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Monticello, population 2,200, looking east to Colorado's Dolores Canyon and the San Juan Mountain range on May 10, 2018. Several San Juan County residents say it's time to step back and figure out ways to hold difficult conversations across the political divide in southeast Utah.

Long-running debates over the designation of Bears Ears National Monument, a voting rights lawsuit that redrew the county’s election maps to correct for what a federal court determined was racial gerrymandering and other concerns came to a boiling point after two town hall meetings in San Juan County last month, prompting some residents to call for increased dialogue and listening.

A citizen-driven ballot initiative that could lead to a change in the form of government in the future was seen by some as a way to improve the responsiveness of local elected officials and by others as a way to undermine the county’s first majority-Navajo County Commission.

Political debate over that issue and others spilled into heated charges of racism, and several county residents who spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune said it was time to step back and figure out ways to hold difficult conversations across the political divide in southeastern Utah.

“As neighboring communities and residents, we have so much more in common than not,” said Kim Henderson, a resident of Monticello who organized a town hall in late August.

Henderson said she was glad to see such high turnout at the town hall, which had over 110 attendees and featured presentations from many guests, including state Rep. Phil Lyman, Commissioner Bruce Adams and former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, all Republicans.

But Henderson, who at times has been highly critical of Democratic Commissioners Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes, added that she is encouraging speakers with a greater political diversity to participate in future town hall events. Henderson said she is reaching out to residents across the aisle, and she is hoping upcoming meetings won’t be seen as politically one-sided.

“I don’t see any other way that we’re going to be able to navigate through these things until we can sit down and have some maybe awkward and difficult conversations,” she said. “But I think that if everybody is willing to just be respectful and open-minded, then I think it would be really positive.”

Davis Filfred, a former Navajo Nation Council Delegate and current board chairman of the nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB), agreed more could be done to increase communication in San Juan County.

"A lack of communication and understanding between the white demographic in the north and the Native American-majority in the southern portion of the county is unhealthy, and needs to be addressed with equitable solutions to facilitate listening and ensure the safety of all citizens in the county,” Filfred said in a statement Wednesday.

“We should come together and say, ‘Hey, we’re from the same county,’” Filfred added in an interview with The Tribune. “We’re not going nowhere. We need to know more about you guys, and they need to know more about us.” He noted, however, that while political divisions don’t always fall along geographic or cultural lines, those conversations could lead to increased cultural sensitivity.

“We don’t need to have a standoff,” he continued. “We need to come together, put the animosity away and start talking, being rational about things."

In order to make that happen, Filfred’s group is asking for outside help. In his statement released Wednesday, UDB called on the leaders from the tribes, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the state of Utah “to facilitate a neutral process to help the county heal, through listening, and learning the cultural norms that create ... unnecessary conflicts.”

A joint statement released by the Monticello City Council and the Blanding City Council last week also called for cooperation. “It is time for every group in our area to focus on our similarities and work toward the common good. We can have differences of opinion and still treat each other with courtesy,” the city leaders wrote.

Jim Sayers, a member of the Bluff Town Council, said that while he didn’t know if town hall meetings are always the best format for airing concerns, he does believe that controversies can sometimes be a sign of progress.

Sayers moved to Bluff in the early 1980s to work as a public school teacher and recalled a story he heard from a doctoral candidate who was doing an ethnographic study in San Juan County schools at the time. She told her adviser that a breakdown in communication across the county was causing conflict among residents.

According to Sayers, the adviser replied, “I’ll tell you, if the communication was better, the situation would be a lot worse.”

It was a series of controversial lawsuits against the San Juan School District, Sayers said, that led to tough conversations and eventually began to improve educational opportunities on the Navajo Nation, including the construction of more schools on the reservation.

“The lawsuits were very tense moments among the schools,” Sayers said, but navigating that controversy led to a better outcome than if simmering conflicts had been ignored.

“I had a principal once who said you don’t get anywhere without controversy,” he added. “I think to some extent that is correct.”

Sayers said that regardless of your political leaning, it’s worth recognizing the historic nature of Utah’s only majority-Native American county electing its first majority-Native American commission.

Blanding City Council Member Cheryl Bowers said she believes communication has improved overall among county residents over the past 20 years, even if recent litigation has roused passions.

“In my role as a domestic violence and sexual assault advocate, I feel like we’re seeing more people in the county trying to support each other,” she said.

Bowers, who is involved in the citizens group with Henderson, said they are planning to hold town hall meetings throughout the county, including in Blanding and in Aneth or Montezuma Creek on the Navajo Nation, both of which will be hosted by local residents.

“We’re going to invite anyone to come and have a conversation in an effort to try and bring us together to talk,” she said.

Bowers said the voting rights case and court-ordered redistricting that divided Blanding and its outskirts into three commission districts in 2017 have left some local residents feeling underrepresented at the county level.

But one positive development this year, Bowers said, was a resolution passed by Maryboy and Grayeyes to hold every third commission meeting outside of Monticello. Since the resolution went into effect, meetings have been held in Monument Valley and Bluff, which Bowers described as a good thing for broadening political engagement across the county even if it means increased transportation costs for county employees.

Bowers welcomes difficult political conversations. “If we’re pushing for more communication about feelings that have been in this county for a very long time,” she said, “I do think that is good if we can keep it civil.”

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.