It seems Republican voters in San Juan County have had all the change they can handle after a tumultuous couple of years that saw election of the first majority-Native American commission following a landmark voting rights lawsuit.
Bruce Adams, a retired school teacher and rancher from Monticello, appears likely to roll into his sixth term as San Juan County commissioner after he defeated Blanding City Council Member Cheryl Bowers in the June 30 Republican primary.
Adams ran largely on a platform of experience and institutional knowledge, given his 16 years on the commission. Why not four more?
It worked. He won the primary with 52.5% of the vote, according to preliminary results released by the San Juan County Clerk’s Office.
“I felt like I would run one more time because I have the knowledge and experience that San Juan County needed,” Adams said, noting his participation in multiple statewide organizations, including the Utah Association of Counties, the Community Impact Board, the Joint Highway Committee and Utah Counties Indemnity Pool. “I want to help San Juan County be the best it can be.”
During the primary race, Bowers ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility, challenging Adams on a $6 million drop in the county’s general fund over the last five years, which prompted the county to raise its property tax rate last December. (The tax hike was later postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.)
Bowers pointed out the commissioners gave themselves raises even as the general fund was nearly depleted, and questioned hiring decisions in county departments. The vast majority of one-time, general fund expenditures, however, were legal bills paid to outside law firms, largely between 2015 and 2018.
San Juan County is majority Native American, and in 2012, the Navajo Nation sued the county under the Voting Rights Act. Two of the three commission districts were majority white, and a federal judge ruled that they had been gerrymandered along racial lines. The judge brought in a court-appointed special master in 2017 to redraw the districts.
The county’s first ever majority-Navajo commission was elected in 2018. Adams, who is white, is currently the sole Republican on the commission, and he serves in the northern district, which runs from Spanish Valley to the northern third of Blanding.
The voting rights lawsuit, which the county litigated for years and lost on appeal last fall, was the largest legal expense, totaling over $3 million.
But under the previous commission, which included Adams, now-Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, and Democrat Rebecca Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation, the county fought several other expensive legal battles, most of which were initiated behind closed doors. A claim for a three-mile right-of-way in Recapture Canyon cost the county more than $440,000. And a lobbying effort to pressure President Donald Trump to reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument cost close to $500,000, as did a second voting rights case.
“In the last five or six years, the county’s been sued and sued and sued,” Adams said. “And it was a threat to our private property rights, it was a threat to our existence as a county and I felt like it was incumbent upon me — and so did the other two commissioners — that we defend ourselves against these lawsuits. So, yes, we did spend a lot of money defending ourselves against multiple lawsuits that were filed against the county, and that’s where the money went.”
Bowers won big in her hometown of Blanding, where she earned more than 70% of the vote, while Adams earned a similar amount in Monticello, according to the San Juan Record.
Bowers won a slight majority in Spanish Valley near Moab, where a planned 5,000-acre development on state land and controversy over a truck stop have been the subject of much commission debate during the last year.
Adams faces no Democratic opposition in November’s general election. His only challenger is Monette Clark, a Spanish Valley resident who, like Adams, has deep family roots in southeast Utah. Clark is running on the ticket of the United Utah Party, which was founded in 2017 with a platform that emphasizes finding “common ground” above any specific ideology.
The party’s emphasis on moderation, Clark said, would benefit controversy-addled San Juan County.
“I feel this was the thing San Juan County needs to get out of this conflict — this bear trap — we seem to be in and with so much of the conflict and the rancor,” she said. “I see the United Utah Party as a really great option for people to have a forum where they can just meet and find a common ground.”
Clark served on the county’s first planning and zoning board in 2007, and has been active in the debate over the proposed development of Spanish Valley, which Adams has mostly supported.
“I see Adams’ views as very extreme,” she said. “Although he has done some good things for the county, he has left the county essentially broke. If you leave the county in a position like that, there’s something wrong with your approach or your views.”
Clark would like to attract more small businesses, light manufacturing and worker-owned enterprises to the area, and focus on renewable energy development over mining and drilling. “The greatest untapped natural resource we have is sunshine,” she said.
Adams called Clark a “strong environmentalist,” suggesting that may be a barrier for her in the general election. In a recent op-ed about his candidacy in the San Juan Record, Adams wrote, “I believe the greatest danger to our county is the influence of extreme environmentalism. We are under attack and it sometimes feels like a war.”
He said he plans to continue to support mineral extraction, including helium, copper and potash mining.
“I think San Juan County has been a county that’s relied on extraction for most of their existence, and hopefully the extractive industry will produce some revenue for the county in the coming years,” Adams said. “Hopefully we can get our reserves built back up, but I think a lot of that will depend on our ability to attract extractive industry to our county.”
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 by clicking here.