Tension grows between commissioners, attorney
Tension between San Juan County Commissioners and County Attorney Kendall Laws threatens to turn into legal action.
Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy introduced a resolution at the April 2 commission meeting that, if approved, would authorize a lawsuit against Laws for failure to comply with prior commission resolutions.
The motion would further authorize commissioners to retain outside legal counsel to bring the lawsuit.
Laws met with Commissioners Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes at the April 2 Commission meeting and discussed his concerns with the proposed resolution. Commissioner Bruce Adams was not in attendance because of a family emergency.
The resolution could become an action item at a future Commission meeting.
Laws stated that the office of the Utah Attorney General is interested in meeting with local officials, including Commissioners, to discuss ongoing legal issues and provide training. The AG office is scheduled to be in San Juan County on April 23.
The resolution introduced by Commissioner Maryboy states that Laws had failed to comply with two Commission resolutions, including 1) a directive to provide information regarding ongoing litigation involving the county and 2) a directive for the county to withdraw from representation by the Mountain States Legal Foundation.
Laws presented information regarding the ongoing litigation and pointed out that the directive was immediately problematic because it gave a January deadline but was not approved until a February meeting.
Regarding the directive to withdraw from the Mountain States Legal Foundation, Laws stated that he has sought the opinion of the Utah State Bar on possible conflicts of interest and has not yet heard back.
“If we wait,” said Laws. “It will protect the commission, protect the county, and protect me as the county attorney.”
“This is not delaying,” he added. “I thought it is in the county’s best interest to get this opinion before we proceed.”
Commissioner Grayeyes said, “My question is, what conflict of interest? I need to get it in a written form.”
Laws said, “OK, I will gladly do it in writing.”
While not detailing the conflict of interest concerns, Laws has suggested that one concern is the ongoing involvement of Attorney Steve Boos.
Boos, a private attorney from Durango, CO, represented the Navajo Nation in the voting rights lawsuit that resulted in new Commission boundaries in San Juan County. Boos has submitted approximately $3 million in legal fees for the case, which could be paid by San Juan County.
In addition, Boos has acted as a private attorney for Grayeyes and Maryboy, and continues to provide pro bono legal advice for the Commissioners.
In another portion of the meeting, Commissioner Maryboy said, “Steve Boos was my attorney back when I served on the Navajo Nation Council. I trust him.”
Laws stated that he would be glad to meet with the Commissioners, but does not want to meet them with Boos there.
“It is well within the law to not meet for a variety of reasons,” explained Laws.
“I do not intend to get involved in the politics,” said Laws. “I just am trying to make sure that things are done appropriately, ethically and in the appropriate procedure.
“As soon as I hear back from the Utah State Bar, I intend to let you know.”
Laws stated that he has received no answer from the Utah State Bar on the questions he submitted more than one month ago.
Laws added, “If the Bar says it is ok, I intend to follow through with the resolution as I am instructed to do.”
Laws also expressed concern about the “practical implications” of the resolution.
“If a lawsuit is filed between the County Attorney and the County, the county will end up paying for both sets of attorneys in that matter.”
He added, “There are several options aside from litigation, including seeking an opinion from the State Attorney General.”
“I advise that you follow a safer protocol and a safer procedure,” said Laws. “Nobody will win in this situation.”
Regarding the ongoing litigation involving San Juan County, Laws provided information on eleven separate cases.
He said that eight of the eleven cases are in an appeals court waiting for an opinion. He said these cases “could foreseeably be done without any additional costs.”
In addition, he said that three of the cases are paid in full by other entities and “cost San Juan County absolutely nothing.”
“Not a single penny of San Juan County money will ever go to Mountain States Legal Foundation,” said Laws. “That is another reason to wait for an opinion before we move.”
Legal fees have cost San Juan County $2.5 million over the three previous years, with an additional $3 million in attorney fees that may need to be paid to Boos’ firm for the voting rights lawsuit.
The General Fund Balance for San Juan County briefly dropped below $1 million in 2018. In previous years, it generally carried a balance between $6 and $8 million.
The total fund balance for San Juan County, carried in a host of accounts, totaled $33.5 million at the end of 2018.
Commissioner Bruce Adams recently testified before the Utah State Legislature that legal fees took up approximately one quarter of the general fund expenditures in 2018.
While not part of the resolution, Commissioners also expressed concern about the recommendation from Laws on a proposal to hold Commission meetings in other areas of the county.
Commissioner Grayeyes said to Laws, “Your advice was that state law says no. I differ with that.”
Laws said that it is appropriate to have meetings in other areas to seek the opinion of people there. However, he added, “Regular Commission meetings are to be held at the county seat. That is my reading of the law.”
In other matters at the meeting, resolutions were introduced to urge the continued operation of the Kayenta Coal Mine at Black Mesa and the Navajo Generating Station near Page, AZ.
Both facilities provide employment for San Juan County residents and are threatened for closure.
In addition to the resolution regarding Kendall Laws, Commissioner Maryboy also introduced resolutions requesting an audit of legal work back to 2009, terminating the county involvement with the Mountain States Legal Foundation, regarding roadless areas on National Forest land, and supporting a bill before Congress regarding the Antiquities Act.
Commissioners approved county participation in two projects of the Community Reinvestment Agency, including a project in Bluff and a project in Blanding.
The City of Blanding will participate in the Blanding project, while the Town of Bluff has declined to participate in the Bluff project.
The San Juan School District has declined participation in both projects.
In brief, tax revenue from these entities can be used to help develop infrastructure for the projects.
Economic Development Director Natalie Randall discussed a number of issues with Commissioners, including a new grant program for community tourism and marketing efforts. It will be introduced in June.
Randall discussed a recent meeting with allotment holders in White Mesa regarding the broadband network project. Randall said officials are still waiting for approvals from a few allotment owners for a right of way. She said the network is all through existing power lines.
Commissioner Grayeyes said he is concerned about the expanded network being made available to community members and seeks a written commitment on the issue.
Margie Memmott, the Southern Region Director of the Utah State University Extension, met with Commissioners. Memmott described the “strong partnership” between USU and San Juan County.
Jerry McNeely discussed a number of issues with Commissioners.
McNeely said the Bureau of Land Management estimates that nearly three million tourists will visit San Juan County in 2019.
He reported that a new ATV trail in the Black Ridge Area will eventually tie into the Hook and Ladder ATV system.
McNeely said that the parking lot and road were widened at the Geyser Pass area in the La Sal Mountains. The area experiences heavy visitation for winter recreation.
County Planner Nick Sandberg said that the oil and gas leases originally set for a March auction in San Juan County were deferred to a later date in order to complete additional studies.
Sandberg added that implementation of the Bears Ears Management Plan has been delayed until the Bears Ears Advisory Committee is in place and can review the plan.
A number of residents commented at the meeting.
Wendy Black asked about the interactions between Commissioners Maryboy and Grayeyes and attorney Steve Boos.
The Commissioners have stated that Boos is the author of resolutions that have been considered by the Commission and that he is not being paid for the services.
Kelly Mike Green expressed concern about the conflict between the Commissioners and County Attorney Kendall Laws.
“My hope is that you will be able to work out differences with Mr. Laws,” said Green.
Green added that he has conflict of interest concerns about Boos and his law firm.
“Mr. Boos stands to gain millions of dollars,” said Green. “That is like letting the coyote into the sheep pen.”
Shanon Brooks expressed concern about a March 16 Democratic Party meeting at Pack Creek that included Commissioners Maryboy and Grayeyes, but not Commissioner Adams.
Commissioner Maryboy said that he was invited to the meeting by the Democrat Party and assumed that Commissioner Adams had also been invited.
Brooks said that Adams had not been invited.
Steven Pearson approached Commissioners about road signs that have been removed from roads on the Navajo Nations. Pearson said that the county and the Navajo Department of Transportation need to work together. He said it is a safety issue, an address issue, and a school bus issue.
Cheryl Bowers, of the Blanding City Council, urged the Commissioners to work out differences with County Attorney Kendall Laws without resorting to legal action.
“We may not always agree and that is ok,” said Bowers. “But I would much rather that tax dollars not be used for legal and attorney fees.”
Bowers urged county participation in the Community Reinvestment Agency project in Blanding, saying the Blanding City Council unanimously approved the project.
“This will be the only motel of that type in Blanding,” explained Bowers. “It is financed and managed by local residents of Blanding and will help improve the northern entry into Blanding.”
Sumer Wojcik expressed concern about the lack of interaction between the Navajo Nation and San Juan County law enforcement agencies.
“It is difficult to respond to emergency situations when San Juan County cannot respond on the Navajo Nation,” explained Wojcik, who works with sexual assault victims.
Wojcik added, “There are innocent victims in this dog fight.”
Commissioners said they are anxious to find a solution and keep people safe.
Commissioner Maryboy said that when Anndine Jones was reported missing in Aneth, San Juan County arrived two hours before Navajo Nation law enforcement.
Bruce Royer asked about conditions on the McCrakken Mesa road, saying, “It is the worst public road I have ever driven on.”
I wish that we focus on specific county issues and deal with them,” said Royer.
“Let others fight it out in Washington, and let’s focus on issues that we can solve here.”
Cynthia Wilson discussed the commission resolution regarding commission meeting in other areas of the county.
Wilson said that the one hour and 30 minute drive to the meetings means that there are “lots of missing voices in this room that could offer a lot of insight.”
Nicole Perkins decried the contention and division in the county and said that when all is said and done, “we will be left with the debris.”
Perkins asked about the legal work of Steven Boos, who represented Commissioner Grayeyes in a private lawsuit that challenged Grayeyes’ residency.
After Grayeyes said that Boos represented him “pro bono,” Perkins asked about the $271,271 legal bill that was presented to Kelly Laws for the case.
Grayeyes said it was a private legal matter and not pro bono work for the county.
A representative from the office of John Curtis said the Congressman is “trying to find common ground on issues in order to move forward.”
In the work session, Commissioners discussed a maintenance service contract for the control system at the County Jail with Sheriff Jason Torgerson.
The jail control system was upgraded in 2017, at a cost of $450,000. The new system includes door controls, cameras, an intercom, and touch screen monitors.
A three-year service contract will keep it updated at a cost of $11,700 pre year.
County Administrator Kelly Pehrson said the contract is not in the current budget and would need to be paid with reserve funds.
“I don’t know how we can say no to it,” said Pehrson.
Commissioner Grayeyes said he needs more information about county finances before they approve any expenditures outside of the budget.
“How far down are we?” asked Grayeyes. “Six feet? No one wants to talk about it but everything we do gets back to it. The real question is are we broke? We need to take a closer refined look at the budget.”
Heather Young and Heather Raisor discussed the San Juan County Historical Commission with Commissioners. They presented the latest issue of Blue Mountain Shadows, the 59th issue of the historical periodical.
The Historical Commission was created in 1994 to preserve historical sites, buildings, documents, and photos.