After a landmark power shift that gave San Juan County its first majority Navajo Democrat commission, a state lawmaker from mostly white, Republican Blanding is broaching the subject of secession.
The sheer size of the state’s largest county, which has more land area than Massachusetts and takes about two hours to traverse from top to bottom, has prompted past conversations about carving out one or more new counties. Now, with a fresh sense of disenfranchisement permeating some San Juan communities, Rep. Phil Lyman says county division is something to consider.
“I’m not necessarily a proponent of doing it, but I’m certainly a proponent of having that option on the table and not making one group feel like they’re at the mercy of someone else or held hostage,” Lyman, a Republican, said.
His hometown of Blanding for years controlled a seat on the San Juan County Commission (Lyman served on the panel from 2011 to 2018), until a federal judge realigned the district lines to reverse the long-standing power balance that favored white residents. In his ruling, Judge Robert Shelby wrote that “it is critically important that the officials representing the citizens of San Juan County are elected under constitutional districts — not districts that have been racially gerrymandered.”
Lyman has objected that the judge’s map broke Blanding into three districts, diluting the largest San Juan city’s influence in picking one of the county commissioners.
The new boundaries gave Navajos, who slightly outnumber whites in the county, the voting power to elect two tribe members to the three-member commission last year, for the first time in San Juan’s history.
Lyman said the changing power dynamic isn’t the reason he’s talking about dividing the county. But “chopping Blanding up into three pieces” has left that community feeling aggrieved, said Lyman, whose legislative district is three-quarters white.
“It really was just designed to disenfranchise a community. The fact that we’re the largest community and we don’t have a commissioner representing us is troublesome,” Lyman said. “It illustrates that, you know, we’re not all on the same page.”
The court order that led to last year’s special election has been fought tooth and nail by Republicans. The county has an appeal pending on the decision and during the election, the county clerk kicked one Navajo candidate, Willie Grayeyes, off the ballot for allegedly violating nonresidency rules until he was reinstated by a federal judge and went on to win the election. The clerk’s action in backdating a complaint to allow an investigation to go forward remains under review by a prosecutor.
Talk of county split doesn’t surprise Mark Maryboy, a former San Juan County official who says some of the whites who have long held sway are threatened by the Navajo-dominated commission. He does not believe fracturing the county would be good for residents at this point.
“The people are already somewhat divided. I think if that happens, there’s going to be further division, and both sides will suffer,” said Maryboy, a community activist and former four-term county commissioner.
Meanwhile, Lyman is supporting state legislation designed to give communities more agency in forming new counties. As it stands, a proposed secession must be approved countywide, by voters on both sides of the split; Rep. Kim Coleman wants to change this law so the decision falls only to residents in the area considering independence.
Coleman, R-West Jordan, said the nation has a rich tradition of allowing citizens to choose their governing leaders, dating all the way back to the American Revolution.
"We didn't ask King George's permission. We said we were leaving," Coleman said.
She said she’s advancing the legislation on the principle that communities should be self-directed and not to promote a particular split, although she has heard of interest in dividing Salt Lake and San Juan counties.
The statutory process for forming a new county is somewhat rusty, with the century-old Daggett County the state’s youngest jurisdiction. But the first step is a petition drive, followed by a special election if enough signatures are gathered.
Some Daggett residents say the split from Uintah County never should have been allowed because it left the former county — the state’s smallest with a population of about 1,000 — with an unsustainable economy.
San Juan County is the state’s 13th most sparsely populated, with about 15,350 residents. It is the poorest area of Utah, with one of every four residents living below the poverty line. Poverty in the Navajo portion of the county has a poverty rate close to 50 percent, much higher than in other areas, former San Juan Commissioner Rebecca Benally, a Navajo, told The Salt Lake Tribune recently.
Coleman says the Legislature’s signoff is also required (while the need for legislative approval isn’t spelled out in the law, she said it’s implied by a constitutional provision that classifies counties as “legal subdivisions of the state”).
Her bill, HB93, last week won a favorable recommendation from the House Government Operations Committee, over the objection of two Democrats on the panel.
Reps. Patrice Arent and Jennifer Dailey-Provost said they’d be nervous about zeroing in on a single part of the county formation process without taking a more holistic look at it. For instance, they wondered about letting communities split off without giving those left behind a chance to weigh in on the changes, which might have a deep impact on their tax base and the financial health of their local government.
These concerns are echoed by the Utah Association of Counties, which has taken a position against Coleman’s bill.
“There are reasons that counties are formed, and there are reasons counties are re-formed and separated out from each other, but they’re not simple, and it should be a lengthy process,” said Adam Trupp, the association’s chief executive officer. “You can’t just leave an island of population ... and say, ‘Good luck, you’re on your own.’ It just creates more problems for that community.”
The potential for creating inequities came up in the 1990s during a previous discussion about segmenting San Juan County.
A University of Utah study commissioned by the county determined that dividing could economically cripple the Navajo portion in the south, the Deseret News reported in 1997.
Lyman said since then, the tax base on the northern end of the county has been “dramatically diminished,” so the two sides are more comparable.
Maryboy was on the commission when the university’s study was conducted and said that at the time, relations were strained between the white and Navajo parts of the county. But now, there’s reason for hope, he said.
“The two county commissioners that are Navajo will be more inclusive, which means better economic growth for everybody,” he said. “They want to work with everybody, the city councils of Monticello and Blanding.”
Blanding’s mayor, Joe Lyman, said he hasn’t studied the idea of dividing San Juan enough to offer an opinion, although it could be examined.
“If splitting the county would alleviate some of the political difficulties of overlapping a sovereign nation, it should be discussed as an option,” he wrote in an email. “The goal should be to get the best representation for all involved and for each resulting county to have the power of self governance.”
He declined to comment further.
Bruce Adams, a San Juan County commissioner, didn’t want to share his opinion on county division, saying he didn’t trust The Tribune to represent his viewpoint accurately.
“The discussion should start with the County Commission. It shouldn’t be something that is started by The Salt Lake Tribune and then the County Commission discusses it after everyone has read the story,” the Monticello resident said.
Grayeyes also declined to comment for this article, and the third San Juan County commissioner, Kenneth Maryboy, could not be reached.