Voting rights tensions erupt again after San Juan County attorney alleges commissioners violated the law

The alleged violation could be easily remedied, county attorney says, but other say no laws were broken.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) A San Juan County sign identifying an early voting location in Bluff on Oct. 23, 2019.

One side called it an illegal meeting that was held behind closed doors. The other side says no laws were broken, and the accusation is yet another effort to roll back recent voting rights gains made by Native Americans in San Juan County.

The dispute began in January when San Juan County Commissioners Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes — both Democrats and members of the Navajo Nation — received an email from a paralegal working for Steven Boos, a private attorney based in Durango, Colo., who represents the commissioners and assists with the drafting of resolutions.

The email contained a proposed ordinance that would approve a new school board voting map for the San Juan County School District. Members of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, which has long advocated to strengthen Native American voting rights in southeastern Utah county, were copied on the email.

San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws submitted a letter to the commissioners ahead of their vote to approve the school board map, arguing that they had violated Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act by holding a meeting between two of the three county commissioners without proper notice. Laws claimed that the email “constitutes an electronic meeting,” and that it was held as a “follow up to a currently unknown discussion.”

Boos, the private attorney whose paralegal sent the email, said that a one-way email on which multiple commissioners are copied does not violate the law.

The commissioners voted to approve the new maps on Jan. 18, with both Democrats voting in favor and Commissioner Bruce Adams, a Republican, voting against.

Laws said in an interview that the county is now at risk of being sued, adding that he has “heard rumblings through the grapevine” that the school district and the cities of Blanding and Monticello are “pissed off enough about it that they’re going to do something,” which could include legal action.

“Realistically, it’s an easy fix,” Laws said. “All they [the commissioners] have to do is put it back on the agenda and have a conversation about it and redo the vote.”

A long-simmering conflict

But the commissioners have so far not taken Laws’ advice, and the standoff has brought long-simmering conflicts back to the surface — the latest round in over forty years of voting rights battles in the majority-Native American county, including numerous lawsuits and settlements.

Boos successfully represented the Navajo Nation in a voting rights lawsuit against San Juan County that was ongoing when Laws was elected as the county attorney in 2014. A federal judge eventually ruled that the county had violated the Voting Rights Act and ordered the school board and commission maps to be redrawn. The county appealed, but the 10th Circuit Court declined to overturn the decision.

A special election using the new districts was held in 2018, and Maryboy and Grayeyes were elected to the first majority-Indigenous commission in county history.

Laws’ father, Kelly Laws, ran an unsuccessful campaign against Grayeyes as a Republican in 2018, and he later sued Grayeyes in state court, claiming that Grayeyes was not a Utah resident. Boos represented Grayeyes in the case, and both a district court judge and the Utah Supreme Court sided with Grayeyes.

In a recent email exchange between Boos and Laws, which The Salt Lake Tribune obtained through an open records request, Boos cited the voting rights lawsuits, the Grayeyes residency challenge, and other instances as reasons why the commissioners had sought his legal counsel.

“After the 2018 election,” Boos told Laws, “Mr. Grayeyes and Mr. Maryboy anticipated that, based on your prior actions, it was uncertain that they would be able to rely on receiving unbiased legal advice from you.”

In a testy response, Laws accused the Boos — who has worked as a lobbyist for the Navajo Nation — of telling a “ridiculous fairytale” about the county’s past legal entanglements. Laws claimed that he recused himself from all instances where there was a conflict of interest with his father.

“I would encourage you to refrain from being so public with your malicious storytelling,” Laws wrote, “or you will be immediately served with a libel/slander suit and I will own even the shiny new letterhead of that solo practice of yours. Let me be clear, I have quietly been going about my business representing San Juan County and collecting a lot of damning evidence against you and your associates in the process.”

A potential election mess

Though the hostile relationship between the two attorneys is complicated and long-running, Laws said his concern over the alleged Open and Public Meetings Act violation is simple, and he emphasized that he does not wish to overturn the school board map supported by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and the Democratic commissioners.

“Everybody’s dug their feet in like I’m trying to reverse their decision,” Laws said. “That’s not my job. … I’m actually trying to protect the county commissioners’ decision so that it doesn’t get overturned.”

March 4 is the filing deadline for county and school board offices, and the county commission only has one planned meeting before that date, on March 1. Three incumbent school board members were placed in a single district under the new voting map, which has been a source of concern from the school district.

If a lawsuit were brought against the county after candidates file, Laws said it could create serious confusion for the school board elections as the suit plays out.

Proposed open meetings legislation

Some observers of the conflict in San Juan County saw HB 285, a bill that Rep. Phil Lyman (R-Blanding) has introduced in the state Legislature, as connected to Laws’ letter. Lyman served as San Juan County commissioner prior to the 2018 special election, and his bill would add misdemeanor charges for “a member of a public body who knowingly or intentionally excludes from an open meeting a member of the public who has a right to attend the open meeting.”

Lyman said the bill was inspired, not by Boos’ actions, but by protests over mask mandates at school board meetings in Utah last year. In May, anti-mask protesters shut down a board meeting of the Granite School District, and 11 people were later charged with misdemeanors. Similar protests occurred in Davis County and elsewhere. Some parents who were accused of disrupting meetings were prohibited from entering school property, Lyman said.

“I think when the government decides they are going to exclude someone from a public meeting,” Lyman said, “they should do it with the jeopardy of potentially being held accountable for that.”

Laws said he believes Lyman’s bill is flawed, and that it could make it difficult to remove people from meetings who have engaged in disorderly conduct.

‘Strange and counterintuitive’

Whether or not the Open and Public Meetings Act was violated by Maryboy and Grayeyes remains in dispute.

Bruce Baird, a Utah-based attorney who said he has been involved in hundreds of open meetings over the last 30 years, reviewed the January letter Laws sent to the commission. Baird said he found Laws’ reading of the statute “strange and counterintuitive.”

“Lobbyists and other people draft legislation for officials all the time,” Baird said. “That’s part of your right to petition the government. You’re petitioning them by giving them a proposed resolution.”

Baird added that unless there had been a meeting between two or more commissioners to discuss the ordinance prior to the email, he doesn’t understand how the electronic communication itself constituted a meeting under the law.

Laws said he had additional evidence that a meeting had taken place prior to the email, which he declined to share with The Tribune.

“Even if I’m wrong [about the violation],” Laws said, “it still has the potential of disrupting the election where it doesn’t need to because the fix is so simple.”

Correction: 9:08 a.m. Feb. 18, 2022. The story was updated with the correct filing deadline for school board and county candidates in Utah.

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.