A state lawmaker from Blanding is gauging support for carving San Juan County into three pieces — the southernmost encompassing communities on the Navajo reservation — while dismissing accusations that the push has racist undertones.
Divvying up Utah’s largest county would bring local government closer to the people and restore representation for San Juan’s conservative central region, which recently lost control over a county seat, Rep. Phil Lyman said. And in a Facebook post earlier this month, he asked people if they would sign a petition to put the question on the ballot as soon as this year.
Some say an effort led by white residents to break away months after the county voted for its first majority-Navajo County Commission sends a troubling message, but it’s one Lyman brushes off.
“You can’t sneeze down here without being called a racist by people on the Wasatch Front,” Lyman, a Republican whose legislative district is three-quarters white, said in an interview.
It’s not just outsiders who are using the term to describe the county-split idea.
“I don’t know who in their right mind would want to support something that would be so racist, as I see it,” said San Juan County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, one of two Navajo Democrats elected to the three-person panel in November.
White Republicans lost their historic advantage on the commission after a federal judge ruled the county’s voting maps disenfranchised the American Indian population and ordered redrawn districts.
The resulting shift provoked an outcry from areas of the county that felt their power slipping away and kicked off their protracted struggle to reassert dominance, Maryboy said.
The court order that led to last year’s special election has been fought vigorously by Republicans. During the election, the county clerk even kicked one Navajo candidate, Willie Grayeyes, off the ballot for allegedly violating residency rules until he was reinstated by a federal judge and went on to win the race.
Maryboy views the talk of county division as the next step in this fight and an extension of a Trumpian obsession with walls.
“It’s a slap in the face,” he said.
Lyman has said it stands to reason that residents in Blanding, the county’s largest city, would feel disenfranchised by a map that diluted their votes by separating them into three districts.
His recent social media post talked about dividing San Juan County into three sections of about 2,600 square miles and roughly 5,000 residents apiece.
The northernmost would contain Monticello, Spanish Valley, Lisbon Valley, Eastland, La Sal and Canyonlands National Park; the middle would encompass Blanding, Mexican Hat, White Mesa, Halls Crossing and Hite; and the southernmost piece would include Bluff, Monument Valley and communities inside the Navajo Nation.
These new county boundaries would respect watersheds and geographic regions with shared economies, he wrote. The map he posted on Facebook appears to divide Bears Ears National Monument, created by President Barack Obama and later downsized by President Donald Trump, between the upper and middle counties.
Bears Ears has been a fraught issue in San Juan, with the Navajo-led commission supporting a larger monument and the county’s old political establishment opposing it.
Commenters on Lyman’s social media post were largely receptive to his map.
“This is brilliant in every way! EACH county would win, each would finally be represented by those they are aligned with,” one person wrote.
Another person suggested that expanding San Juan’s commission from three to five members should also be on the table as a way to increase representation for the county’s different communities.
Lyman said he isn’t necessarily advocating for the county map he posted on Facebook but does think it should be up for debate and possibly come before voters in a special election later this year — largely because Blanding feels disenfranchised.
“Your biggest community is feeling kind of left out of the political decision-making,” Lyman, who formerly served on the County Commission, said. “This three-member commission is trying to do a good job, but I think ... nine commissioners focused on their smaller counties could do a better job.”
To Maryboy and Alastair Lee Bitsóí of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit that supports indigenous communities in protecting their culturally significant ancestral lands, the drawback would be deepening the divides that have already fractured San Juan communities. Native communities have felt ignored by past San Juan commissions, but the recent election created an opportunity for healing and focusing on countywide priorities such as transportation improvements and water-resource management, Bitsóí said.
Instead, some white residents are focused on protecting their privilege, he said.
“They feel like things are being taken away from them, but actually it’s not," Bitsóí said. " ... The San Juan County Commission definitely represents the demographics of the county."
Utah hasn’t created a new county for more than a century, but the process would begin with a petition to gather signatures from at least a quarter of qualified voters in the new counties and what’s left of the existing one.
Completion of this step would trigger a special election. As it stands, a proposed secession must be approved by a majority of voters in the new counties and the one left behind. During the legislative session, Lyman supported a bill that would’ve put the decision only to residents in the area considering independence, but that measure failed.
San Juan leaders, including then-Commissioner Mark Maryboy, in the ’90s entertained the idea of splitting the county along the Navajo reservation boundary and asked the University of Utah to study the proposal. The university’s analysis found that dividing could economically impair the southern part of the county by slashing government revenues there from about $732 to $472 per person, and commissioners scrapped the idea.
Mark Maryboy, a now-retired Navajo politician and the brother of Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, has told The Salt Lake Tribune he does not think partitioning San Juan would be good for residents.
On the other hand, Lyman contends that conditions for a split are more promising now than two decades ago. The tax base in the southern section of San Juan is now much more on par with the rest of the county and would be supported by tourism and oil resources, Lyman contends. The northern portion has significant development potential, he said. And the middle portion has some flourishing college medical facilities and could focus on improving marinas around Lake Powell as another revenue producer.
The state lawmaker said he hasn’t embarked on a signature-gathering effort but will begin “if there’s interest, and there obviously is.”