Commission considers voting district changes for schools, commission

The San Juan County Commission did not add their name to a pro-monument op-ed, moved forward on a plan to update commercial appraisals, and directed their redistricting professional to create at least four more maps for consideration as part of the November 3 commission meeting.

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 San Juan County Commission is tasked with redistricting the San Juan School Board and the county commission boundaries.

San Juan County most recently redistricted in 2017 as the result of a 2015 voting rights lawsuit against San Juan County by the Navajo Nation.

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 hired a redistricting expert, Bill Cooper, who has more than 35 years of experience. He also served as an expert for the Navajo Nation in the 2015 lawsuit against the county.

Cooper has met with the commission in their past two meetings, providing maps that account for the changes in population in the county. Copies of the maps and supporting documents can be found on the San Juan Record website at sjrnews.com or at the county website at SanJuanCounty.org

Cooper reports the commission districts are just slightly outside of the allowable deviation. The westernmost district two is slightly overpopulated and the easternmost district three is slightly underpopulated.

In the county school board districts, most of the seats are in line with allowable population with the exception of the southwestern district five and the southeastern district four.

While Cooper says the rule of thumb is that voting districts can be within five percent of the ideal population size, he is attempting to have zero difference between district populations.

“I believe because Judge Shelby’s ruling was so close to the release of the 2020 Census that it is appropriate to try to get close to zero deviation,” said Cooper. “...As you can see, in both the commission and the school board plan, I got very close to zero.”

Cooper’s Option A proposal for the county commission would have 4,845 residents in district one, 4,842 residents in district two and 4,831 residents in district three.

To bring those populations in balance, Cooper proposes shifting 366 residents of Blanding City from one district to another, including moving 26 residents northeast of Blanding from district one to district three, and moving the entirety of White Mesa – 178 reported residents – from district two to district three.

In Cooper’s proposal, 570 people would shift districts, and of that total 375 voting-age adults would be shifted. The proposal would see 3.6 percent of the adult population of San Juan County change commission districts.

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

At the November 3 meeting of the San Juan County Commission, members of Blanding City Council voiced their concerns about how current and possible future redistricting impact the Blanding community.

At the meeting, Council member Cheryl Bowers shared a letter from the Mayor Joe B. Lyman which was signed by all five members of the Blanding City Council.

The letter states that the 2018 court ordered redistricting, “unnecessarily divided the community of Blanding effectively eliminating our voice as a community of interest in choosing our representatives on the County Commission.”

The letter also argues that the City of Blanding and the surrounding area – including the annexation boundaries – are a community of interest that should be protected from being split as it is not mathematically required for commission districts.

City officials say that dividing the community into “a small minority of each district effectively eliminate(s) the voice of our voters in choosing or influencing the commissioners. This was evidenced by the fact that none of those eventually elected did any campaigning in Blanding. Our votes simply didn’t matter.”

Mayor-elect Logan Monson also weighed in at the meeting. Monson said that while the redistricting effort had been careful to make note of and attempt not to divide chapter boundaries, the same consideration had not been given to municipalities in the county.

“We’re not here to say our voice matters the most,” said Monson. “I think we’re just here saying we want to be on an equal playing field.”

Commissioner Bruce Adams suggested that it would be helpful for Blanding City Council to consider submitting a proposed map for consideration.

Multiple maps was also a request of Deputy County Attorney Alex Goble.

“One of the major concerns that our office has – given the long litigation we recently went through – is making sure that our commissioners are picking from options,” said Goble. “We would prefer as many as five maps, but at least three, so that the commission has the opportunity to look at different maps, different methodologies that you might have approved.”

Cooper did confirm he could and would present additional maps.

“I tried to make it as simple as I could to correct the deviation issues, but other communities could be moved around or other streets in Blanding,” said Cooper. “It’s not necessary to exactly follow the lines that I’ve drawn. This is just sort of an initial approach which could easily be changed.”

Goble also asked that the following priorities be considered in order of priority. Starting with keeping all commissioners within their existing district. The next priority is maintaining one person, one vote principles, avoiding excessive changes in redistricting, all as part of adhering to Judge Shelby’s orders related to the redistricting lawsuit.

Goble also shared concern about public statements asking to completely avoid consideration of dividing chapters in the district.  

“That does create an appearance of race being the main basis, because chapters apply only to our Native population,” said Goble. “So I don’t want that to be discussed as a hard and fast rule.

“Obviously it’s one that in the order we want to adhere to what the Judge ordered us in the order, but we would ask for options that explore the permeability inside those priorities.”

Cooper did note that within the school board districts, Aneth chapter was divided in 2018 and would likely be in two school board districts again.

In addition to the county legal office sharing thoughts, the Director of Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission was also in attendance. 

Leonard Gorman said his office is tasked by the Navajo Nation Government to represent Navajo people regarding redistricting activities in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. 

Gorman said, “We will be examining the maps being published at the moment and we will be assessing the current iterations and where we find it necessary to provide additional comments, additional tweaks where necessary we will utilize that opportunity.”

While Blanding officials provided comments on proposed commission districts, there has not been much feedback yet on school board districts.

Since school board seat three is located between seats four and five, Cooper explained to take the population from seat five and give to seat four, seat three acted as a pass through.

In Cooper’s option A proposal, 1,044 residents would change districts. A proposed 7.5 percent of the county population – including parts of Blanding, White Rock, areas east of Bluff, and east of White Mesa – would shift to new school board seats.

At the same commission meeting, commissioners decided not to add their name to an opinion editorial that spoke favorably of the Bears Ears National Monument designation.

The op-ed was opposed in public comment by members of both the Monticello and Blanding City Councils, who argued the letter was not representative of the county as a whole.

Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy brought the letter – which states support from Bluff as well as Moab and Grand County – to the commission agenda and spoke in favor of it.

“I think the letter and the opinion is already out,” said Maryboy. “As a matter of fact, I think it’s at the chapters now for consideration to support and it is supporting, and I would suggest to move on with the letter as it is.”

Commissioner Bruce Adams asked that the letter be tabled, adding, “I think this letter is significant enough and I would make a recommendation we table it until we can have public hearings from the public, especially from Blanding and Monticello and any others that want to comment on it before we move forward with support.”

Commissioner Willie Grayeyes also chose to pass on adding the county’s name to the letter.

“Since we already submitted the letters from the county expressing appreciation to (Secretary Haaland and President Biden) I think that suffices,” said Grayeyes. “This probably would be sort of like a duplicate and as indicated many outsiders are also signed on to this op-ed.”

The motion to add the county’s name to the op-ed failed without a second. 

The commission also approved a notice to award for The Appraisers, Inc to perform appraisal services of commercial properties in the county in 2022. 

The appraisal process would ensure that valuation on commercial properties are updated on county tax rolls.

In fairly assessing commercial properties in the county, additional tax revenue could be discovered or there could possibly be a reduction if the county is over-valuing a commercial property.

Acting as the Board of Equalization, the commission also adjusted tax roll classifications for more than 25 parcels that had missed the 2021 deadline.

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