Redistricting decision looms for San Juan County Commission Dec. 21

Time is winding down on redistricting in San Juan County, with the county commission identifying their December 21 meeting as decision time.

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 2018 under the direction of Federal Judge Robert Shelby as the result of a voting rights lawsuit filed against San Juan County by the Navajo Nation.

The commission is still receiving public input on redistricting proposals through December 15. Maps can be reviewed and comments can be given through links on the county website. 

The county is also distributing comment forms to local Navajo chapters, to allow those without internet access to provide input as well.

In addition to comment periods, the county also held a public hearing on the matter on November 30.

Four commission maps were discussed at the public hearing, as well as two school board maps. The commission heard from their hired redistricting expert, Bill Cooper. 

Cooper has more than 35 years of experience and served as an expert for the Navajo Nation in their lawsuit against the county.

Cooper outlined once again his two proposals for the commission and one proposal for the school board. 

Cooper’s maps have been self-described as a ‘least change’ plan. Cooper’s maps would make tweaks to the boundaries set by the current maps that were put into place by court order in 2018.

Cooper’s Option B commission plan would shift 4.8 percent of county residents to a new district, including 442 adults in the Blanding area and 36 in the Dennehotso chapter. All other plans presented would have more significant shifts to current districts.

The commission also saw drawings of maps provided by the Navajo Nation Office of Human Rights Commission

The Navajo Nation provided two maps, one for the county commission and one for the school board. The proposed maps retain similar shapes to the court-ordered 2018 with some slight changes.

In a previous meeting, Director of the Navajo Nation Office of Human Rights Commission Leonard Gorman said that their school district map proposal is intended to unpack district 5 and balance the Native American population amongst the majority Indigenous districts.

The Nation’s proposed commission map also places Commissioner Willie Grayeyes and Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy in the same district.

Previous maps that would keep Blanding City contained to one district were not discussed at the November 30 public hearing.Those proposals had come at the request of Blanding City elected officials. 

The proposed map kept Blanding whole but also placed Navajo Mountain and Spanish Valley in the same district, an area which would be separated by 250 miles of roadway.

The commission did see a new map at the public hearing entitled Auditor Plan 3, which was created by the office of County Clerk/Auditor Lyman Duncan. That map looks different from the others under consideration.

District 1 would contain northern San Juan County and Monticello, as well as Eastland and Ucolo and include all residents north of UT-162 near Montezuma Creek, and Aneth.

The proposal would split Blanding down the middle in District 2 and 3, with White Mesa, Bluff, Mexican Hat, and the southern half of Montezuma Creek and Aneth in District 2.

District 3 would hold the other half of Blanding, as well as Oljato-Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain.

Cooper reported an issue with this proposal as it diluted the percentage of Indegenious adults in District 3.

Cooper’s proposed maps fall close in line with the 2018 court ordered redistricting. District 1 would have Indeginous adults make up nine percent of the total adult population, District 2 with 68 percent and District 3 with 76 percent. The Navajo Nation proposal is similar, with 11, 70 and 75 percent proposed.

The Auditor 3 plan, however, would change District 1 so that 29 percent of adults in the district would be Native American, with 71 percent in District 2 and 54 percent in District 3.

Cooper said, “54-percent district would not be sufficient to allow a candidate of choice of the indigenious population to get elected to the county commission. You’d need a higher percentage in order for that district to be competitive.”

Cooper said the Special Master Report from the 2018 court case states that a district with a Native American voting age population percentage in the low 50th percentiles would probably not be able to elect a candidate of choice under most scenarios.

“That’s because of low voter-turnout above all,” said Cooper. “The Navajo Nation is so widely dispersed that a lot of people can’t get into a post office to mail in a ballot or to get to a polling place. That’s the issue.

“Judge Shelby took that into consideration as well and that’s why he approved the final plans from the special master in 2017, upheld by the 10th circuit court of appeals in Denver.”

Cooper adds that although he’s not a lawyer, he forecasts a lawsuit would likely be filed if the county selected the Auditor 3 map.

“Under almost any scenario it would not fly before a federal judge because the Native American voter age percentage in commissioner Grayeyes’s district is cut by ten points compared to the 2018 court ordered plan,” explained Cooper.

“I say almost because if commissioner Grayeyes voted for that plan then it would stand a fighting chance but there is no guarantee. Auditor 3 map would almost certainly result in a new lawsuit, even if Commissioner Grayeyes voted for it.”

At the public hearing, two Monticello residents and one Eastland resident spoke against using racial data to inform redistricting.

Monticello resident Doug Allen recommended the county go to at-large elections.

“I guess I’m a little distressed that we sit here worrying about what’s high enough to make sure that a Native American can be elected,” said Allen.

“That is discriminatory and its insulting. If the candidate is good I would vote, no problem, for a Native American.

“So what is the threshold that makes it possible that’s going to meet this court ordered discrimination? Is it 64 percent? What is it?

“I can’t imagine if this was reversed and it was two primarily white or hispanic districts demanding it be at least 60 percent, boy we’d be in trouble.”

During public comment, the commission also heard from Navajo Mountain resident Jeff Begay.

Begay spoke about his time with the US Army in Vietnam and his oath to uphold the US Constitution. He also expressed support for the Navajo Nation proposed maps, saying it was his opinion that the office has the best interest of both communities.

“We have been left out on a lot of benefits of the country and for that reason we are coming to an era where we are finally beginning to realize that we need to work together,” said Begay. “That’s why I’d like to see that a very equitable solution be picked.”

By law, redistricting must be completed by the end of 2021. The commission has plans to finalize redistricting at the December 21 meeting.

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