Blanding City Council concerned about redistricting process

The Blanding City Council made plans to comment on county and state redistricting efforts and heard a presentation about community health at their October 26 meeting.

At their most recent meeting, the council approved plans to send letters and pass resolutions asking that Blanding City not be divided into multiple voting districts.

Members of the Blanding City Council have taken exception to the current San Juan County commission districts and the 2021 redistricting effort, if the process continues to divide Blanding.

Mayor Joe B. Lyman said that the city has argued they are a community of interest that should be protected by voting districts.

“We meet every possible legal qualification to be a community of interest,” said Lyman. “Which by law is supposed to be protected, and yet we were divided.”

Lyman says that the city is divided politically, pointing to the fact that Blanding is divided despite not making up more than one-third of the county population.

Lyman says while the City of Blanding is split between two districts, the greater community of Blanding is split between three districts. Lyman says opposing lawyers at the time said identifying the community of Blanding is difficult.

“They couldn’t find Blanding on the map,” said Lyman. “Couldn’t figure out where that was, 678 phone numbers, 84511 zip code, anyone who when you say ‘where are you from?’ and they say ‘Blanding’, whether in the incorporated area or not.

“Every other community in the county was easily identified, but they couldn’t find Blanding. The largest community in the county, they couldn’t find it on the map.”

Redistricting occurs every ten years following the US Census. Redistricting is when voting district boundaries are redrawn to make sure populations are equally represented in legislative bodies.

The Utah State Legislature redistricts the Utah United States House of Representatives, the Utah State Legislature, and the Utah State School board boundaries, while San Juan County Commissioners redistrict the San Juan School Board and the county commission boundaries.

There are rare exceptions to those rules, such as in 2015, when a voting rights lawsuit against San Juan County by the Navajo Nation resulted in redistricted boundaries. 

The following elections resulted in a historic first of two Native Americans serving on the county commission.

Now following the 2020 census, it is time to redistrict San Juan County again.

The county commission has hired a redistricting expert, Bill Cooper, who has over 35 years of experience; he also served as an expert for the Navajo Nation in the 2015 lawsuit against the county.

Cooper presented to the county commission on October 19 and is scheduled to present again on November 3 (after the press deadline). In the October 19 meeting, Cooper presented data from the Census to show changes in population. 

Over the past decade, the overall population of San Juan County fell by one percent, but the population grew in Blanding and the Spanish Valley area. 

According to the population report, the county commission districts as currently constituted are just outside the allowable population deviation of five percent.

District One has a population of 4,725 people, District Two has 5,158 people and District Three has 4,635 people.

District One is the northernmost voting district represented by Commissioner Bruce Adams, District Two is the westernmost district represented by Commissioner Willie Grayeyes and District Three is the easternmost district represented by Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy.

The current county commission districts split Blanding City in commission districts one and two, with district three also approaching near Blanding City limits and including populated areas east of town.

While redistricting can make slight changes to current boundaries or trigger a complete overhaul, Cooper recommended a ‘least change’ proposal, meaning making changes around the margins in order to bring district populations into balance.

Council member Logan Monson added his concern with the most recent meeting of the commission, where Cooper suggested the least-change plan.

“It’s us, that’s what they’re doing,” said Monson. “They’re continuing to split (Blanding) more.”

In referencing bringing district two and three into the standard deviation, Cooper said the redistricting could be done very easily by shifting a few blocks in Blanding. Cooper also received clarification from the commission, who asked him to avoid splitting Chapter areas.

In addition to comments on the county commission redistricting efforts, Council member Cheryl Bowers suggested they submit comments on the state redistricting efforts.

San Juan County is part of Utah House District 73, which is represented by Blanding resident Phil Lyman (R). 

The current district 73 boundaries includes San Juan County, as well as counties to the west including Kane, Garfield, Wayne and Piute counties, with parts of Beaver and Sevier counties as well. 

Whether to keep similar boundaries in the Utah House or include San Juan County with northern counties such as Grand has been a topic of discussion.

At the meeting, Bowers said “After discussions with Monticello and Representative Lyman, we’d like to go west. This is his recommendation, and mine as well.” 

The council made plans to draft letters to both the county commission and the state redistricting committee with their comments.

“Those are the points I’d like to make again,” said Mayor Lyman, “They most likely would be fruitless, but sometimes when a bully’s going to punch you in the nose, you need to make sure that everybody knows that they’re doing that.” 

At the meeting, the council also received a presentation from Get Healthy Utah about the Healthy Utah Community Program.

The program is sponsored by the non-profit Get Healthy Utah with the Utah League of Cities and Towns.

The Healthy Utah Community Program is a designation to recognize healthy Utah towns. The designation has been given to 22 Utah communities, ranging from Kanab and Nephi to Provo and St. George.

After learning about the program at a recent conference, Monson and City Manager David Johnson realized Blanding is already mostly qualified for the designation.

The designation requires a community health coalition, approval from the Mayor and at least six strategies from four categories, including collaboration, access to healthy food, active living and mental health.

Strategies listed in those categories range from health-related objectives in the general plan, a community garden, free or low-cost fitness programs for adults and children, and promotion of the use of the SafeUT app in schools and community centers.

Johnson says applying for the designation could help bring greater focus on the healthy wellbeing of Blanding.

“These types of programs make you look holistically at maybe where there’s gaps in the mental health, and physical health and wellbeing of your community,” said Johnson.

While there are no grants offered by the Get Healthy Utah program, Monson points out that in meeting some of the criteria, the city could become eligible for grants through other programs.

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