Public hearings on election districts draw large crowds
Federal Judge Robert Shelby and "Special Master" Dr. Bernard Grofman were involved in public hearing on November 16 regarding the proposed new boundaries for Commission and School Board districts.
More than 120 people attended the hearing in Monticello, with 16 people making public comment.
In Bluff, an estimated 150 people were in attendance, with ten people making public comment. After both hearings, members of Judge Shelby’s staff took comment from others.
In addition, written comments were accepted and email comments will also be accepted. The original deadline for emailed comments is Friday, November 17, but Judge Shelby said that his staff would accept comments through the weekend.
The email address for comments is firstname.lastname@example.org . Comments should be 500 words or less.
Shelby has announced that he intends to accept new voting districts by December 15 and is on an aggressive schedule to complete the work by then. It is the final stages of a lawsuit filed byt he Navajo Nation that accuses San Juan County of unfair election districts.
Dr. Grofman, an expert in redistricting, was hired as a “Special Master” to draw the redistricting borders. Grofman has released three preliminary conceptual maps for the three commission districts and two preliminary conceptual maps for the five school districts.
Details on the proposals can be foumnd at the San Juan Record website, at sjrnews.com.
Shelby outlined his work over the past five years on what he called “a long, hard, complicated case,” and added, “I understand how important these issues are to everyone in the county.”
Dr. Grofman, who is a professor at the University of California – Irvine, said that his goal was a “common sense attempt at redistricting.”
Grofman said that he made the recommendations without using race as the preponderant motive.
He said that his goals are good government and outlined three principles he used in the process, including “drawing lines that reflect where the people are, keeping intact, as much as possible, census population concentration and using common sense regarding the school districts near the schools.
The first public comment at the meeting in Monticello was Blanding Mayor-elect Joe B. Lyman, who said he was representing everyone who calls Blanding home, whether or not they lived in city limits.
Lyman read a resolution approved by the Blanding City Council which opposes any three-member district that divides the community.
Lyman added that not having a hearing in Blanding was unacceptable because the Blanding community – the largest in San Juan County – bears the heaviest impact of the proposed redistricting.
Lyman said that the distance from Blanding to Monticello or Bluff, the timing of the hearing in the middle of the work day, and the lack of adequate public notice is not acceptable.
He suggested that perhaps a five-member Commission, voted at large, would not create as much division and inequity.
“This is not the only option,” said Lyman, referring to the proposals, and added, “It is clearly at large with good government standards.”
Lyman closed by expressing the clear and nearly unanimous opposition of the community of Blanding, and the unanimous opposition of elected officials.
Commissioner Phil Lyman discussed the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which embodies the concept of one man, one vote.
Commissioner Lyman said that the law allows a variance in district population of up to ten percent, which he called a cushion that allows for common sense in districting.
Lyman said that the current Commission districts are within the ten percent variance and that the lawsuits are over matters that are not in violation of the law.
Lyman said that he feels that Blanding is singled out in the proposed redistricting and rejected suggestions that it is not possible to have a district that includes all of Blanding.
“To say it is not possible is a farce,” said Lyman, “we have done it.”
Lyman also questioned Shelby’s role in the matter. Judge Shelby was the judge during the trial phase when Lyman was convicted of organizing and participating in the Recapture Canyon protest.
“We need an impartial judge in this decision,” said Lyman.
After stating that he has seen bugs under a rock, Lyman added, “I have seen the collusion that takes place inside the federal system” and suggested that Judge Shelby should have recused himself on the matter.
Susie Philemon, of McCrakken Mesa, said she opposed the plan, stating that the 1984 Consent Decree – which set up the prior districting plan – stated that redistribution is needed only under growth. The prior plan was set up and administered by the U.S. Justice Department Office of Civil Rights.
“The Navajo Nation should have sued the Justice Department, not San Juan County,” said Philemon, who added that the redistricting process should be initiated by San Juan County, not by outside people.”
Philemon added that misleading statements have been made by Navajo Human Rights officials at recent Chapter meetings and complained about “intimidation by Navajo Nation tribal officials.”
Lloyd Nielson addressed his concerns about the listing of the percent of Native American residents in each option and said that the divisions are not equal.
Harrison Johnson, of the Aneth Chapter opposes the plan and said, “We don’t like this.” Johnson said the plan creates division and pleaded, “Leave it the way it is. We work together equally.”
Johnson added that he feared that “the white folks in San Juan County might think Utah Navajo are suing the county.”
He added that “the Navajo Nation and the small group that they run around with” are responsible and said, “All they have is hatred.”
Doug Wright, who served for 14 years as the superintendent of the San Juan School District, said that after six years of fighting, “the proposals are back where we started,” with two Anglo-dominated districts, two Native American-dominated districts and one split district with a narrow Native American majority.
“This doesn’t really seem to fix the issue that was brought to the court initially,” said Wright.
Merri Shumway, who serves as Vice President of the school board, outlined the school district position throughout the process. Shumway encouraged districts that are anchored in the communities that feed the local schools. She added, “It is hard to represent schools that are not in a candidate’s community of interest.”
Ron Nielson, the acting superintendent of schools, said that the school system is very aware of the issues. “The community concept and feeder school issues continues to be our main concern.”
Howard Randall, who has served as San Juan County Assessor, said that land ownership and taxation should be considered. Randall said that private ownership of land is limited in San Juan County and property taxes provide significant revenue to the county.
Randall suggested that because of limited land ownership options on reservation lands, this may become a case of “representation without taxation.”
Kay Shumway stated that he returned to his boyhood home in Blanding to help build a college with a focus on Native Americans. The campus has grown into a major branch of Utah State University.
Shumway said that education is the way out of poverty and stated that the Native American population of Blanding is an estimated 28 percent of the total.
Shumway said he is disappointed that a hearing was not held in Blanding and that the Blanding community would be split under the proposals.
Betty Jones spoke in Navajo and said her fanmily had lived in the Bluff area long before white man came. She added, “For a long time, no one from the Navajo Nation has helped us.”
Anna Tom asked the judge to “keep it the way it is.”
Annie Stone suggested that the tribe doesn’t help the people and that is pathetic.”
Stone added, “It is the county that helps the family. The county is doing their job, not the Navajo Tribe.”
Terry Whitehat said he had driven from Navajo Mountain to comment on the proposal. Whitehat outlined his frustration in finding employment in other areas of the county and suggested that racial discrimination may be responsiblre.
San Juan Record Editor Bill Boyle discussed the unintended consequences of the 1984 Consent Decree and encouraged the judge to consider those issues when making a decision. He suggested that the demise of the two-party system in San Juan County may have been hastened by the consent decree, which resulted in party politics based on racial lines.
The other unintended consequence is that San Juan County did not redraw district boundaries in 1990, 2000, and 2010 because they had been set up by the federal government with no instruction on how they should be changed.
Alfred Jim, the Teec Nos Pos chapter president, said his chapter has representatives that live in San Juan County and he has obligation to represent them.
Jim was chairman of the Utah Navajo Commission for a year. He encouraged county residents to “leave it up to the judge, let the judge decide.”
At the hearing in Bluff, Blanding City Councilman Robert Ogle presented the Blanding City statement. Ogle said, “Good governance would never demand that a city be fractured and disenfranchised, as this plan does.”
Ogle summarily dismissed the maps that were presented and asked why different maps were presented in both hearings.
Ogle encouraged the judge and Grofman to “do their work, redo the maps and make a good decision for the people of San Juan County.”
Paul Dent, a resident of Bluff for several years, said he does not think that the 2010 Census was correct. He suggested that the court “go back and update the numbers.”
The 2010 Census found that San Juan County was 50.4 percent Native American. Dent asked if the population drops to 49.9 percent would the court redraw the districts?
Gary Guymon outlined his experience teaching in the local schools. Guymon said, “We share many things. We want to be successful and have jobs and opportunities.”
“We hate to see Blanding split up,” said Guymon.
Leonard Gorman, who heads the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, said he was tasked to redistrict San Juan County.
He spoke for ten minutes, recounting the principles of the Constitution, the Voting Rights Act and good governance.
Gorman called for a special election for all eight positions in 2018 and said that the county should redraw precincts after every Census.
Jay Mueller of Mexican Hat said that there is a unique situation in San Juan County. He asked, “Does the Navajo Nation have their own government? Can we have a nation within a nation? Will that stand?
Mueller closed by stating, “Tear down that wall, that reservation wall, and let’s become Americans.”
Nate Sosa welcomed the group to Bluff and said, “This is what the democratic process should have looked like all along. Just because you don’t pay property tax doesn’t mean your vote should be diluted.”
Sosa also called for a special election for all eight seats in 2018.
Reuben Jim said, “To the people in Utah, I hope you understand exactly what you are getting yourself into. In Arizona, they are still on the same roads I grew up in. There is steady improvement in San Juan County.
“I don’t want this county to be divided. That is what I see racially. The people in San Juan County are good people. Reconsider all these alignments.”
Chester Johnson of Aneth said Utah Navajos should be involved in the process. “We have good communication with San Juan County and our elected officials. Don’t see any need for the Navajo Nation to come in with this lawsuit.”
Johnson called the lawsuit silly and said it will cost too much money. He added that the rumored $2.5 million in attorney fees could be better spent locally rather than paying attorneys.
Johnathan Nez, Vice President of the Navajo Nation, said that the judge found that the current boundary lines are unconstitutional and violate the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution.
Nez said that the Navajo Nation filed suit because San Juan County wasn’t doing what needed to be done.
He added that Utah Navajos should decide on their leaders, elect a representative of their choice, and have equity in the funds spent by the county and the schools.
Louise Rock, from the Oljato chapter, was the last person to give public comment. Rock said she would have preferred more public hearings. She preferred Option B for the Commission district and Option 1 for the school board.
Rock said Blanding should have their own district area and added, “The more, the merrier in one community.”
Rock said it was an historic moment for San Juan County and said it would be better to use the attorney fee money “in our community rather than sending it to the Navajo Nation.”