When David Everitt was hired as interim administrator for San Juan County in early May, the county was in turmoil.
It had been four months since the County Commission flipped to Democratic control after a high-profile voting rights lawsuit resulted in redrawn voting districts of the majority-Native American county.
“It was really fascinating from a political and management standpoint what was happening in San Juan County,” recalled Everitt, who had been Moab City manager at the time and previously served as chief of staff for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. “The redistricting case was ... really an historic event.”
Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy, the new commissioners, had wasted no time making controversial changes, passing a series of resolutions to reverse the county’s official position on Bears Ears National Monument and to support an expanded 1.9 million-acre monument.
These actions and others sparked outcry from conservative county residents, and commission meetings were often packed with critics.
By April, conflicts between the new commissioners — who are both members of the Navajo Nation — and other county officials had boiled over. Maryboy proposed a resolution to sue County Attorney Kendall Laws for failing to carry out the commission’s orders.
Then longtime County Administrator Kelly Pehrson resigned on short notice. He declined an interview request from The Salt Lake Tribune but told the Deseret News that the new commissioners refused to work with the staff and morale was “at an all-time low because [Maryboy and Grayeyes had] been listening to outside voices.”
One of the “outside voices” was Steven Boos, a Colorado-based attorney who had led the voting rights case and was giving legal advice to Maryboy and Grayeyes and helping write resolutions. At the time, Maryboy told The Tribune that Boos was helping because Laws and Pehrson were being insubordinate, a claim the two officials disputed.
“When Kelly left the county, they were in a little bit of a bind,” Everitt said. “The two new commissioners were working to bring someone in who they could lean on for some advice and some staffing.” Everitt spoke with Maryboy and Grayeyes and they decided to hire him on an emergency, interim basis.
That the county was in need of a new administrator was readily apparent in the May 7 meeting where Everitt’s contract was approved. The action item to hire him was misplaced on the work session portion of the agenda, and Maryboy and County Clerk John David Nielson sparred over the mistake.
When the commissioners voted on the item, Commissioner Bruce Adams objected. And after the meeting, a county resident filed a formal complaint with the Attorney General’s Office, claiming Maryboy and Grayeyes had violated the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act.
“That was a hyper-technical issue that I think from a functional standpoint would not have been an issue in any other context than where San Juan County was at at that particular point in time,” Everitt said.
The Commission voted 2-1 to hire him at the next meeting, with Adams — who said he had been left out of the hiring process — voting against. The AG’s office said its investigation found no further action was necessary "because the commission correctly noticed and acted on the issue at a subsequent meeting.”
As Everitt settled into the new position, the meetings quieted down considerably. Boos appeared to step back and the communication issues between county staff and officials began to smooth over as Everitt worked to keep everyone on the same page.
“I really love working in local government because I think it is generally very meaningful,” Everitt said. “It’s not the sexiest work, but it does affect people’s daily existence. I find a lot of meaning in that personally.”
Everitt grew up in Florida, did his undergraduate work at the University of Washington and moved to Utah to work as a volunteer ranger at Arches National Park in the mid-1990s. After receiving a law degree from the University of Utah, he joined Becker’s mayoral campaign and stayed on for eight years as his chief of staff.
In 2017, Everitt signed up for what was supposed to be a three-month gig as Moab City manager, which lasted for over two years. That job was scheduled to end in June when the San Juan County position opened up.
“It was just great timing, a little bit fortuitous," Everitt said. “I thought I could be helpful, frankly.”
Everitt wrapped up his interim appointment in San Juan County last week and is headed back to Salt Lake City where his wife lives. After five months as administrator, he said his biggest accomplishments include implementing better systems for managing agendas and standards for running county meetings. “I think that’s good for both the commission and for the public," he explained. "Everybody knows what the ground rules are and how to operate in a way that’s fair and consistent.”
Another highlight was helping Maryboy and Grayeyes implement their goal of holding every third meeting outside of the county seat of Monticello in order to bring government closer to residents in Utah’s largest county.
The commission held its first meeting on the Navajo Nation in Monument Valley in July. “I didn’t realize how big of a deal that was until it happened,” he said. “People were so appreciative as a community.”
Everitt also helped conduct the search for his successor, Mack McDonald, who took over as administrator at Tuesday’s meeting in Blanding.
“We are excited to bring Mack on,” Maryboy said in a statement announcing the hire. “He has a lot of county administration experience, strong connections to southern Utah, and will hit the ground running here in San Juan County.”
McDonald, who is originally from Kanab but was most recently working in Davis County, said his family is looking forward to moving back to a smaller town. McDonald has served in government for 18 years at local and state levels as well as in the U.S. State Department in Afghanistan. “I enjoy creating efficiencies in government in an effort to reduce costs, plan and prepare for the future, and to assist the public at large,” he said.
Everitt said he spoke with McDonald last week while they were both at a Native American voting rights conference in Salt Lake City. “I said if there one piece of unsolicited advice I would give you, it’s over-communicate with your staff and with the commission,” Everitt said. “It will save you a lot of angst in the long run if you make sure everyone feels included.”
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.