San Juan County heads into another controversial special election — and possibly the first step to a new form of government

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) A bilingual "I voted" sticker in English and Navajo that's being handed out at early voting locations in San Juan County, Utah, in October 2019.

Blanding • When most San Juan County voters fill out their ballots on Nov. 5, they will answer a single question: “Shall a Study Committee be appointed to consider and possibly recommend a change in San Juan County’s form of government?”

The vote is the first step required under Utah code to allow a county to change between one of five legal forms of government. If the measure passes, it will initiate a yearlong study process that may lead to a different ballot question in 2020 — one that could expand the size of the three-member San Juan County Commission.

Although this year’s special election will not trigger an immediate change in the form of government, it’s already been met with a wave of resistance, including charges that its intent is to undermine the county’s first Native American-majority commission, which hasn’t been in office for a full year.

Commissioners Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes, both Democrats and members of the Navajo Nation, won their seats in a special election last November after a federal court ruling that the county had racially gerrymandered its voting districts.

“This ballot question seems like sour grapes from the old guard that were in control of San Juan County’s government historically,” James Adakai, chairman of the San Juan County Democratic Party, said in a statement. “The county’s three-commissioner form of government was just fine and dandy while the white Republicans were in control, but now that Native Americans and Democrats are in the majority on the commission, the three-member commission is suddenly in need to change.

"It’s clear this isn’t a problem with the form of county government but with who the duly elected members of the county government are,” added Adakai, who is president of the Navajo Nation’s Oljato Chapter and a member of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

Blanding Mayor Joe B. Lyman, one of five sponsors who led the petition drive this spring to add the question, disputed Adakai’s interpretation of the motives behind the ballot question. Lyman said he has supported expanding the size of the commission for decades, long before the new commissioners were elected.

In a series of op-eds published in the San Juan Record since early 2018, after the court’s 2016 redistricting decision, Lyman argued that a five-member commission would spread out the body’s workload and “provide a greater voice to the people” by creating smaller districts that would be “likely more in tune with the citizens in their district.”

He also appeared before the commission in February 2018 to request, unsuccessfully, that it add the question to the 2018 ballot.

When asked by email why he started the petition drive after the county’s districts had been redrawn by a court-appointed special master, Lyman said, “Before the recent turmoil, I doubt I would have been able to get people to seriously consider a change.”

In an op-ed published last week in the San Juan Record, Lyman said the racial makeup of the commissioners was irrelevant to him, but the outcome of the voting rights lawsuit had undermined democratic principles. “Currently, we have government by court order, dominated by outside parties, hardly democratic,” he wrote.

“The recent attention given to the districts has created a more educated electorate,” Lyman continued, which prompted him to act on his long-held belief that the commission should be expanded.

The commission maps that were found to comply with Voting Rights Act standards split Blanding into two districts and carved a portion of its outskirts into a third, leaving many residents in the community, which is over a quarter Native American, feeling disenfranchised.

“Decisions by a federal judge have stripped Blanding of representation as a legally protected ‘community of interest,’ ” Lyman added, repeating an argument that is common among Blanding residents. (The county’s lawyers made a similar argument while appealing the new voting maps, but it was rejected by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in July.)

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Davina Smith, now a field director for the San Juan County Democratic Party, speaks before Salt Lake City Council, Aug. 27, 2019.

“Growing up in San Juan County, there always has been a lack of support for our Native communities,” said Davina Smith, a Diné (Navajo) resident of Monument Valley who recently left her role as executive director of SLC Air Protectors to return to San Juan County and work as field director for the San Juan County Democratic Party. She cited a lack of educational, medical and economic resources on the Navajo Nation as well as the many homes that do not have access to running water and electricity.

Smith believes the question is being put on the ballot to dilute the power of the new commissioners and is urging voters to oppose the measure. “There’s a plethora of issues and now we have that opportunity to be heard by two commissioners who are Diné and can relate to and understand our communities,” she said, “but we haven’t really begun to see what that looks like because right now we’re having to deal with this special election.”

‘Emotions are raw’

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) From left, Charlotta Lacy, Nicole Perkins, Kim Henderson, Shanon Brooks and Gail Johnson host a town hall meeting in Blanding, Utah, on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019.

“This is the worst time [the special election] could happen, just because of the perception of it,” said Kim Henderson, a candidate for Monticello City Council who helped organize a town hall meeting Wednesday in Blanding, where the ballot question was discussed. “Emotions are raw, and I can see how it’s perceived as being racial, but that is not how it started.”

Henderson said that even though she is engaged with local politics, she is still learning about the study committee process and hasn’t yet decided whether she supports the measure. She is convinced, however, that the question wasn’t put on the ballot in response to the election of Grayeyes and Maryboy.

The five petition sponsors came from all corners of the 15,000-person county, which is Utah’s largest by geography. Monticello Mayor Tim Young signed on with Lyman as did Spanish Valley resident Wendy Walker Tibbetts and Suzette Morris, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

Alex Bitsinnie, the former president of the Navajo Nation’s Navajo Mountain Chapter in far southwestern part of the county, also sponsored the petition. (In January, Bitsinnie testified against Grayeyes in a trial that unsuccessfully challenged the commissioner’s Utah residency.)

This summer, County Clerk John David Nielson estimated the special election will cost taxpayers $10,000. Nielson certified the petition after verifying the sponsors had gathered more than the 278 signatures needed to place the question on the ballot.

Lyman wrote on Wednesday that the petition sponsors’ appointments to the seven-member study committee will seek to be representative of the county’s communities, and suggested the County Commission could appoint members along with the incorporated towns of Bluff, Blanding and Monticello. (He did not respond to a follow-up request for comment on how exactly the study committee members would be selected.)

Smith, for one, is concerned that proponents of the change in government may have an advantage in the election because it’s being held in an off-year. “Community members [on the Navajo Nation] are asking, ‘What is this? When did this happen?’”

Feds have ‘taken over’

Native American voters in San Juan County already face many obstacles when it comes to voting, she said, including a lack of physical addresses and home-delivered mail services, long drives to polling locations and language barriers. A settlement agreement between the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and the county in 2018 requires the county to air Navajo language ads on local radio stations and to open a number of early voting locations throughout the county.

Newly appointed County Administrator Mack McDonald said the county has voluntarily agreed to air ads on more radio stations than required by the settlement agreement and has complied with directives to hire liaisons to attend meetings on the Navajo Nation to answer questions about the election. In-person early voting began this week with upcoming opportunities for county residents to vote in Bluff, Monument Valley and Montezuma Creek.

Former County Commissioner Lynn Stevens told attendees at Wednesday’s town hall that the majority of county governments in Utah operate under a three-member commission model, but he noted that San Juan is the only county in the state that elects its commissioners by district.

The change occurred after the county entered a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice in 1984 following a voting rights lawsuit. Voting by district led to the election of the county’s first Native American commissioner, Mark Maryboy, in 1986. Ever since, one of the three commissioners has been Navajo until last year’s election of two tribal members.

“In the United States of America, all elections are held by the state,” Stevens, who oversees government relations for the Hole-in-the-Rock Foundation, told the audience. “In Utah, all elections are held by the state — except San Juan County. That’s held by the federal government, and it ain’t going to change … because the federal government will claim we’re being discriminatory, that we’re being racist in our elections. The federal government has taken over the county’s elections … and the state has allowed it.”

He warned that any attempts to substantially alter the form of government or voting districts could lead to more voting rights lawsuits.

"We’re fooling ourselves if we think we can prescribe five districts and then prescribe where the boundaries are,” Stevens said. “The federal court’s not going to let us say where the boundaries are. They’ll call in another [special] master, and they’ll figure it out [according to] the way the federal government interprets the Voting Rights Act.”

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.