San Juan County Commission to pay $2.6 million in plaintiff fees for voting rights case

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) In this photograph taken on Jan. 7, 2019, San Juan County Commissioners Willie Grayeyes, left, Kenneth Maryboy, center, and Bruce Adams share a laugh after being sworn in at the San Juan County Courthouse in Monticello.

Monticello • Seven years after the Navajo Nation first brought suit against San Juan County under the Voting Rights Act, the landmark case that reconfigured the county’s voting districts and led to the election of its first majority-Navajo Commission appears to be finally over.

The San Juan County Commission on Tuesday voted unanimously to pay $2.6 million in plaintiff’s fees to Navajo Nation attorneys over the next eight years. A one-time payment of $1.3 million will be made in January, followed by annual $200,000 payments until the full amount is paid off.

The final figure was the result of a five-hour, court-ordered mediation session between San Juan County officials and the Navajo Nation attorneys that took place under the guidance of a U.S. District Court magistrate judge in Moab on Friday. The Navajo Nation’s attorneys had originally requested $3.4 million in fees and costs under Voting Rights Act provisions, but San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, a Republican who served on the commission throughout the lawsuit, and other county employees involved in the negotiation were able to reduce the final bill by $800,000.

Commissioners Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes, Democrats and members of the Navajo Nation who were elected in November, voted with Adams to approve the terms of the agreement on Tuesday.

“This brings a difficult chapter in San Juan County’s history to a close,” Maryboy, who is chairman of the commission, said in a statement. “It’s time to move forward and stay focused on the business of running this county. My goal now is to have this settlement affect San Juan County’s residents as little as possible as we figure out how to best manage this obligation over the next few years.”

Initially it was feared that the fees could drain the county’s general fund — which dropped precipitously from 2015 to 2018 in part due to $3 million spent on outside legal counsel. But Interim County Administrator David Everitt said he was hopeful the county would be able to weather the expense without dipping into the Tax Stability Fund, a move that would require a vote by county residents.

Everitt said the county may have to make short-term loans to its general fund from other accounts, but that it would not be a catastrophic financial blow to the county.

Adams declined to offer further comment at Tuesday’s meeting, instead directing reporters to a prepared statement.

The fees and costs paid to the Navajo Nation, whose lead attorneys initially requested $415 an hour, were much higher than the fees paid to the defense, even at the reduced rate reached through mediation. The county’s lead attorney in the case, Jesse Trentadue of the Salt Lake City-based firm Suitter Axland, billed at $150 an hour, charging the county $1.1 million from 2015 to 2018 for work on two voting rights cases.

But according to court documents, Steven Boos, the lead attorney for the Navajo Nation, warned of high costs early in the lawsuit. In a letter to Trentadue, Boos recounted a conversation they had in 2012.

“[The Navajo Nation’s attorneys] pointed out that the County would be facing a substantial bill for fees and costs if the issue in the case had to be fully litigated,” Boos wrote, “and suggested that the better course for the County would be a negotiated settlement before any significant financial liability was incurred.”

From 2014 to 2016, the Navajo Nation sent three settlement offers to the county, warning of rising costs. In March 2015, Boos wrote, “To date, [the Navajo Nation’s] expenditures total slightly more than $1 million. We estimate that these expenditures will easily double if this case is not settled relatively quickly, we move forward to trial and, as seems likely at this point, the plaintiffs prevail.”

One year later, Boos told the county the expenditures had indeed topped $2 million and he again presented a proposed settlement.

The county declined all of the settlement offers and brought the case to a trial in 2017. Federal Judge Robert Shelby ruled in favor of the Navajo Nation and ordered the county’s school board and commission districts be redrawn by a special master. He then ordered a special election last November, leading to the election of Maryboy and Grayeyes.

The county appealed Shelby’s decision to the 10th Circuit Court in Denver, which upheld the lower court’s ruling in July and sent the case back to Shelby to award fees. Shelby then ordered the county and Navajo Nation to participate in mediation with a different judge.

Boos told The Salt Lake Tribune that throughout the lawsuit he has been concerned that the county’s decision to continue fighting the case could have been the old guard’s attempt to “burn the place down on their way out the door."

“It was fair,” Boos said of the agreement reached through mediation. “And I don’t think it’ll bankrupt the county, which is something I’ve always been worried about.”

Some county residents have criticized Maryboy and Grayeyes for accepting legal advice from Boos since they took office. Neither Maryboy nor Grayeyes participated in the mediation Friday.

State Rep. Phil Lyman, a Republican from Blanding who served on the commission until 2018, has repeatedly said in past interviews with The Tribune that the case was not about voting rights, but was driven by environmentalists, including proponents of Bears Ears National Monument, who were bent on creating more restrictions on federal lands in San Juan County.

Lyman continued his attacks on Shelby on Tuesday, calling the case “nothing but political backlash by people who hate San Juan County,” in a Facebook post. He believes the judge should have been removed from the case because of his social ties to an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“He should be impeached yet he is upheld by the very people who took an oath to protect the people from such colluding, conniving, conflicted imposters. We have the justice system we deserve because we allow this type of thing to continue.”

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.