Lawsuit settlement urged at Commission meeting
Mar 22, 2016 | 6540 views | 0 0 comments | 228 228 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Settling the lawsuit between San Juan County and the Navajo Nation took center stage at the San Juan County Commission meeting on March 15.

A number of people weighed in on the issue, including members of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, leaders in the districts being affected, and private citizens.

At the heart of the issue is the election districting in San Juan County. The Navajo Nation filed two lawsuits against San Juan County, alleging that the county commission voting districts and the school board voting districts violated federal voting rights acts.

Federal Judge Robert Shelby has ruled in favor of the Navajo Nation in both cases, but the details are still being worked out.

The school voting districts have been changed for the 2016 election according to a plan submitted by San Juan County.

The commission voting districts will remain the same for the 2016 election but will be changed after the election.

Leonard Gorman, Executive Director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, dangled the $2 million price tag of the litigation in front of Commissioners and said he was trying to minimize the legal costs potentially burdening San Juan County as a result of the lawsuit.

Gorman then reiterated to the Commissioners a letter previously submitted asking the county to agree to a reduced settlement.

The letter includes six provisions: 1) the County must agree that their plan was basically unconstitutional, 2) the County must adopt the plan submitted by the Navajo Nation without any changes, 3) the new plan must be in place to affect the 2016 elections, 4) the County must recognized that the federal judge who ruled on the case has jurisdiction, 5) the County must report to the court and the Navajo Nation regarding any adjustments to the plan, and 6) the County will be responsible for any costs incurred by the Plaintiff, less a one-third settlement discount.

As the case is still in litigation, Commissioner Phil Lyman said, “It is really inappropriate for you to come to the Commission with this request.”

Lyman added that they could not discuss the issue while the litigation is in process.

Lauren Benally, Policy Analyst for the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, followed Gorman, outlining the history of the lawsuit and presenting documentation which she said proved that the County’s currently adopted plan is inaccurate and that it violates the Voter’s Rights Act and the Equal Protection clause in the U.S. Constitution.

A settlement was also urged by Clarence Rockwood, Executive Director of the Navajo Utah Commission, who asked that the one-third discount in the settlement be used for the benefit of the Navajo Nation in addressing transportation issues and to buy emergency vehicles and police units. Rockwood asked that the County accept the settlement.

Mark Maryboy said that this issue would have been settled if it had occurred in any other county. He said the loss of revenue from the settlement is affecting county services and is having a huge impact on the academic status of the Navajo people.

“Just because they are a Navajo minority doesn’t mean you need to deny the proposal that is being proposed by the Navajo Nation,” he said. Maryboy encouraged the Commissioners to make what he said is the right decision for all of San Juan County.

Following Maryboy’s remarks, Commissioner Lyman said, “I reject the premise that there has been racially motivated decisions made by the Commission.” Lyman added, “Every effort is being made to be fair and equitable across the board.”

The final citizen comment was from Red Mesa Chapter President Herman Farley, who also encouraged the acceptance of the settlement. He said that the Navajo Nation is united in their support of the settlement.

Commissioner Lyman said they will refer all comments regarding this issue to the legal representatives of San Juan County.

Commissioner Rebecca Benally said that in her discussions with constituents, there is a lot of interest in making changes in the voting process within the Chapters.

Benally also stated for the record that the decisions which resulted in the lawsuit were made before she became a Commissioner.

The voting districts were created in the 1980s after a previous federal voting rights lawsuit. In all of the elections since that time, two of the three Commissioners, and three of the five school board members, have been Anglo.

In the 2010 Census, 50.4 percent of San Juan County residents were Native American.

The Navajo Nation plan would create a Native American super-majority in three of the five school districts and two of the three Commission districts.

In the recent school district plan created by San Juan County, Native Americans were a strong majority in two districts (Districts 4 and 5), Anglos were a strong majority in two districts (Districts 1 and 2), and Native Americans were an estimated 53 percent of the residents in District 3.

(Contributing writer Eric Niven contributed to this story.)
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