San Juan County voters defeat ballot measure to study change in government

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) A handmade sign in Monument Valley ahead of the Nov. 5 special election in San Juan County.

Monticello • A ballot initiative in San Juan County that many saw as an attempt to undermine the county’s first majority-Navajo commission has failed, according to an updated vote count released Friday by the County Clerk’s Office (with an official canvass yet to come).

The question, which would have created a study committee to consider and possibly recommend a change to the county’s form of government, fell short 51.9% to 48.1% — with 2,120 “no” votes and 1,967 “yes” votes.

If the proposition had passed, it would have started a process to expand the size of the County Commission, which, as in the majority of counties in Utah, is currently a three-member body.

The San Juan County Democratic Party and leaders from the Navajo Nation campaigned against Proposition 10, fearing that it would overturn recent gains made by Democrats in the county in the wake of a voting rights lawsuit filed by the Navajo Nation in 2012.

In 2017, a special master was brought in by the court to reconfigure the county’s voting maps. The new districts favored Native American voters, who account for the majority of the county’s population, and led to the election last November of Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes, both members of the Navajo Nation.

One consequence of the redistricting was splitting the county’s largest town, Blanding, among districts, which many supporters of Proposition 10 said was part of why they hoped to expand the size of the County Commission.

Blanding Mayor Joe B. Lyman, who led the petition drive that initiated the special election, has said many residents feel disenfranchised by the court-ordered redistricting.

“I still believe the current districts are gerrymandered according to the stated objectives of those who brought the lawsuit, and that Blanding has been denied representation as a community of interest," Lyman said. “However, if the people vote to accept the current districts at least we have heard the voice of the people.”

“I am so, so relieved and elated. I’m smiling from ear to ear,” said Davina Smith (Diné), a Monument Valley resident who recently left her position as executive director of SLC Air Protectors to campaign against Proposition 10 with the San Juan County Democratic Party.

Smith said she hopes the election result will give Maryboy and Grayeyes the mandate they need to continue to work on important county issues like roads, health care and education, especially in Native communities. “They really haven’t been able to fully utilize their positions yet,” Smith said. “I hope this gives them a better perspective that we are still committed and still will advocate for our commissioners that we voted in."

She noted that for the first time the majority of the commission can speak Diné, the Navajo language, and hear concerns on the reservation where many elderly people do not speak English.

Leaders from the Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa also joined in celebrating the news.

“It’s a great feeling. I am glad we won and that Proposition 10 did not go through," said Malcolm Lehi, who was sworn in on the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council last week. “This election, we organized, mobilized, acted fast, and defeated Proposition 10 by saying no.”

“Normally, a decision, like voting yes or no, for government reform is made without concern for its impact and implications on us as Ute peoples, or other communities across Indian Country,” continued Lehi, who is also a board member of the group Utah Diné Bikéyah. "Moving forward, we must all continue to stand together as Native people when facing challenges.”

“This vote is unprecedented," former Commissioner Mark Maryboy (Diné) said in a statement released by UDB, where he is also a board member. “In 1990, our communities ran an all-Native American slate of candidates for almost every position on the ballot. We ran for the county sheriff, county recorder, county assessor, county clerk, and we were heavily defeated by a 24% margin in some cases, even though we held the majority of the population. Things have changed now that Native voters are educated, registered to vote, and are exercising our democratic voice. Today is a good day.”

Kim Henderson, who was elected Tuesday to the Monticello City Council, said county residents are going to have to figure out a way to make everyone feel represented.

“It’s time for us to try to figure things out and get really get to know each other,” said Henderson. “I think the divide is something we make in our heads."

Henderson has organized several community meetings over the past few months to help educate residents about local issues. She met with Grayeyes on Tuesday to discuss bringing the meetings to the Navajo Nation, and she said their conversation went well.

While she has been critical of some of the commission’s actions in the past, now that Proposition 10 is defeated, she said, there is a need to figure out how to make the current system work, even if that doesn’t mean she’ll cease speaking up when she feels it’s necessary.

“When we sit down on a personal level, I think we realize we really have the same wants and desires,” Henderson said. “We’re all just a lot more similar than different.”

“It’s time to move on, you know, we’re neighbors,” said James Adakai (Diné), chairman of the San Juan County Democratic Party. “We need to coexist. We’ve gone through a lot, and I think we need to put this whole thing to rest [now that] the people voted.”

“I look forward to working across the aisle," he added. "We’re all citizens. We’re all people.... We need to come together and be good Americans.”

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.