Utah Navajos will soon have more political power in San Juan County, though some don’t like the changes

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Navajo Nation's translator Woody Lee and the Navajo Nation's Human Rights Commission Executive Director Leonard Gorman talk with members of the tribe in favor of U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby's redistricting proposals prior to Thursday's hearing in Monticello, November 16, 2017. The proposals would redraw voting districts to ensure significant American Indian majorities in two of three County Commission districts and on four of five school board voting districts as the result of a January 2012 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by the Navajo Nation. The lawsuit seeks the redrawing of voting districts to reflect the 2010 U.S. Census.

Bluff • The old saw, nothing is easy in San Juan County, was born out this week as residents weighed in on proposals that could tilt political power to the Navajo community for the first time since the arrival of white settlers.

Nonetheless, there were many Navajos who spoke out against the court ruling that the existing voting districts in the sprawling southeastern Utah county were in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment.

Virginia Jim, a Navajo who lives near Hovenweep, said she didn’t like the Navajo Nation suing San Juan County, as it did in 2012, largely because the Window Rock, Ariz.-based government has ignored Utah Navajos, while the county has provided roads and schools.

“The Navajo Nation just comes in here and disrupts everything,” she said at a public hearing in Bluff on Thursday. “At least San Juan County helps us. The Navajo Nation does nothing.”

The Bluff meeting was one of pair of public hearings called by federal District Judge Robert Shelby, who found last year that San Juan County’s voting districts for County Commission and school board were flawed and did not protect the voting rights of Navajos.

After the County Commission failed to draw new voting districts that met constitutional muster, Shelby requested that an independent expert — Bernard Grofman, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine — analyze population data and create alternatives.

The county of 16,895 residents is at least 50 percent American Indian and 47 percent white, according to the latest data.

Grofman presented three voting district maps for the County Commission and two for the school board. All of them could result in a Navajo majority for both the three-member commission and five-member school board — something that hasn’t occurred before.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r San Juan County Commissioners Bruce Adams and Phil Lyman get a better look at the county population divisions in the proposed redistricting map for school districts prior to the meeting in Monticello on Thursday. San Juan County residents were presented with proposals of the newly redrawn county commission and school board districts during hearings in Monticello and Bluff, November 16, 2017. The redistricting proposals would redraw voting districts to ensure significant American Indian majorities in two of three County Commission districts and on four of five school board voting districts as the result of a January 2012 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by the Navajo Nation. The lawsuit seeks the redrawing of voting districts to reflect the 2010 U.S. Census. Last year, U. S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby ruled the voting districts in the sprawling southeastern Utah county, which today is home to 16,895 residents, are unconstitutional and violate the rights of American Indians. He ordered the county to redraw them.

Shelby wanted to hear from San Juan County residents to consider the comments on the maps before he makes a final decision as early as this December. Few speakers differentiated between the proposals, instead focusing on the political dynamic in the county.

Harrison Johnson, a Navajo, told a crowd of about 100 at the second meeting in Monticello that his people and Anglos were working together to build a better county and he didn’t appreciate the nation’s lawsuit. Now there is growing friction between the groups.

“The Navajo Nation is causing all this trouble, and we don’t like this,” he said. “They say there is discrimination. But there is no discrimination. They are putting us Navajo against the whites.”

Some Anglos expressed confusion about how the sprawling county is governed when the southern slice of San Juan County is part of the Navajo Nation.

Jay Mueller of Mexican Hat said the Navajo Nation ought not have a say in San Juan County politics. “Can you have a nation within a nation?” he asked. “You have to decide one way or the other. I say, Washington, D.C., tear down that wall.”

Although the county receives millions of dollars a year aimed at providing services and programs for Navajos, a lingering concern for many Anglos is that tribal members who live on the reservation do not pay property taxes. As such, the argument goes, Navajos should not be in control of the county budget.

That didn’t sit well with Nathan Sosa of Bluff. “Just because you don’t own property, doesn’t mean you don’t get to vote,” he said. “I believe these maps are a long time coming. This could have been taken care of a long time ago.”

Before 1984, County Commission seats were elected on an at-large basis. But a federal court decree that year yielded three districts, one of which is almost entirely Navajo. In 1986, for the first time, a Navajo, Mark Maryboy, was elected to the commission. Since then, despite new Census data in 1990 and 2000, no modifications have been made to San Juan’s voting districts.

Jonathan Nez, the vice president of the Navajo Nation, defended Shelby’s order to redraw the districts.

“It’s the 21st century and we still have discrimination. The Navajo citizens want equity,” he said at the Bluff meeting. “We just want our folks to decide who represents them.”

Although some castigated the proposed maps as gerrymandering, Grofman said the conceptual plans adhered to the law. The proposals cannot violate the “one person, one vote” mandate and race cannot be a prominent factor when drawing lines, he said. Beyond that, the districts should be of similar population size.

All of the present commissioners, including a Navajo, Rebecca Benally, have voiced objection to the court’s ruling. The most outspoken of them, Phil Lyman, said the entire process was biased.

“We deserve an impartial judge and I don’t think we have an impartial judge. I think you should recuse yourself,” he told Shelby to applause in Monticello.

The judge in 2015 had overseen a trial in which Lyman was convicted of misdemeanor crimes for having led a group of motorized vehicles up Recapture Canyon, federal land where such use is not allowed. Lyman is continuing to appeal his conviction in federal court.

Some Anglos, including Kay Shumway of Blanding, said the new maps looked to be based on race. “This does not seem right to me,” Shumway said.

But Leonard Gorman, the executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, said that was not so.

“The Navajo people are a protected people under the Voting Rights Act,” he said. “This is not racist, this is what the Voting Rights Act requires.”