San Juan County administrator resigns in latest turmoil since election flipped the county to Democratic control

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Kenneth Maryboy, left, and Willie Grayeyes thank their supporters after being sworn in to the San Juan County Commission at the San Juan County Courthouse in Monticello, Utah, on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019.

In 2013, Kenneth Maryboy sat on the San Juan County Commission when he and his fellow commissioners hired Kelly Pehrson as the new county administrator.

Pehrson, a resident of Monticello, served in the position for six years. Earlier this week, he gave 48 hours’ notice that he was resigning to take a job as the state’s deputy director of agriculture.

“He seemed to be OK back when we hired him,” Maryboy said Tuesday, “but everything got a little too sticky for the past four months now. It sounds like he’s got greener pastures to go to.”

Bruce Adams, the longest-serving and only Republican remaining on the commission, said Pehrson’s service to the county has been “outstanding, excellent, very commendable, all of the above.” He added that the Pehrson helped run the county during a tumultuous time — the installation of the county’s first-ever Navajo and Democratic majority commission after a court-ordered redistricting and special election to correct for what the judge said was decades-old racial gerrymandering.

The change in leadership has rocked the county.

Commission meetings, held in deep-red Monticello, have been tense since the two new commissioners took office in January. Maryboy, who won his old seat back after a four-year break, and Willie Grayeyes have passed numerous resolutions asking Pehrson to complete certain tasks. These include creating an organizational chart of county employees and sending letters to Congress expressing the county’s support for the Bears Ears National Monument — a reversal of its former policy opposing the monument and supporting President Donald Trump’s order to dramatically shrink it. Whether Pehrson complied with those directives is disputed by the commissioners.

“As far as I know, [Pehrson] did everything [Maryboy and Grayeyes] asked him to do,” Adams said. “But how would they know what he’s done? They never meet with him, they never communicate with him. They have no idea what [is] any of the staff the administrator is doing.”

Maryboy, who was contacted by phone as he was driving to Farmington, N.M., to set up a meeting with the Navajo Department of Transportation to discuss roads in San Juan County, said he has been in touch with Pehrson and other county staff throughout his term. “I’ve been emailing [Pehrson].… He doesn’t do what he’s told to do. There’s always an excuse.”

Grayeyes said by text message Tuesday that he’d just learned of Pehrson’s resignation and had no comment at the time.

Pehrson also declined to comment, writing in an email that he doesn’t grant interviews to The Salt Lake Tribune.

He told the Deseret News that the new commissioners refused to work with the staff and morale is “at an all-time low because they have been listening to outside voices.” He suggested Maryboy and Grayeyes “somehow have been coached not to discuss anything with staff.”

Steven Boos, a Colorado-based attorney, has been providing free legal assistance to Maryboy and Grayeyes.

He echoed Maryboy’s assessment that Pehrson had engaged in insubordination.

Pehrson “has not performed any of the tasks that were assigned to him,” Boos said. “And the chairman [Maryboy] has sent a number of memos asking Mr. Pehrson to provide updates [on the assignments]. Those reports weren’t provided.”

The attorney’s relationship with the commissioners has been a source of controversy in recent months.

The Petroglyph, a right-wing blog site in Monticello, published copies of two memos Boos sent to the Navajo commissioners offering his legal services. One document outlined steps they could take to deal with County Attorney Kendall Laws if he did not follow their direction — including hiring outside counsel on specific cases, or even asking the Utah attorney general or district court to intervene. Another article was illustrated with a composite image of Boos holding puppet strings attached to Maryboy and Grayeyes, asserting that Boos is controlling the commissioners.

Adams holds a similar view. “I think [Boos] is the one that’s directing everything,” Adams said.

Boos denies those charges. “I don’t run the county,” he said. “I do what lawyers do: advise my clients.”

Maryboy said he’s turned to Boos for legal assistance because his relationship has “soured” with the county attorney, who is Pehrson’s cousin. Kendall Laws’ father, Kelly Laws, unsuccessfully ran against Grayeyes in the commission election in November after a court-thwarted attempt by the county clerk to remove Grayeyes from the ballot. In December, Kelly Laws sued Grayeyes, reasserting claims that Grayeyes is not a Utah resident. Boos represented Grayeyes at a January trial in 7th District Court in Monticello, which resulted in a favorable ruling for Grayeyes. Laws has since appealed the case to the Utah Supreme Court.

Boos has a long relationship with both commissioners. He served as chief legislative counsel to the Navajo Nation from 1995 to 2001 when Grayeyes and Maryboy were delegates to the Navajo Nation Council. Maryboy said he developed a good relationship with Boos during that time.

Boos "would draft legislation for me to present before the [Navajo] council,” Maryboy said. “He does a lot of things that I have him do with his expertise. When you tell the attorney here [Kendall Laws], he’ll blow you off. So what do you do? You find somebody who does the work.”

“I don’t think Steve Boos is running the county,” Maryboy added. “I think Willie [Grayeyes] and Bruce [Adams] and I are running the county.”

A search for a new county administrator is underway.