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Proposition To Change San Juan County Government Fails By Close Margin

Photo of a hand painted sign on a gate that says "Dooda, proposition 10, vote no."
Kate Groetzinger
A sign on the gate of the Mexican Water Chapter House tells San Juan County voters to "Vote No" on Proposition 10. "Dooda" means "No" in Navajo.

SAN JUAN COUNTY — A proposition to explore a change in county government in San Juan County has failed by a margin of just 153 votes. The county clerk called the race Friday morning, saying that the outcome wouldn’t change with the 125 still-uncounted ballots.

The election was prompted by Blanding Mayor Joe Lyman, who collected signatures to get the measure, Proposition 10, on the ballot. Lyman said his motivation was to restore representation to Blanding — the county’s largest town, with a population of 3,700. 

Blanding was split into three commission districts by a new voting map put in place by a federal court last year. It led to the election of the county’s first Navajo-majority commission in 2018.

Lyman says he does not plan to contest the election or pursue any further action to change the county government make-up.

“I don’t like how we arrived at the commissioners we have because it felt like a judicial appointment,” he said. “But, in a sense, the people have now validated the judge’s decision.” 

Lyman added that although the proposition failed, there is still a lesson to be learned from this election. 

“The one thing I’d point out is that [the vote is] very evenly split,” he said. “And I would hope the commissioners would recognize that and acknowledge that there are concerns about the way they’ve been governing.”

The ballot measure was opposed by the county’s two Navajo commissioners, Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes, as well as Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. Maryboy characterized the effort as an attempt to remove Native Americans from power in San Juan County.

And, although the ballot measure failed, the election may not be entirely over. 

Due to a court settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah last year, the county is required to post a translation of the ballot in Navajo online before it’s mailed out. It also mandates radio advertisements about the ballot in Navajo leading up to the election. The ACLU says the county missed those deadlines.

The ACLU also sent poll watchers to early voting and election-day polling places. During early voting, the ACLU released reports of potential electioneering, citing the county clerk’s distribution of an op-ed by Joe Lyman at polling places. 

The ACLU’s Niki Venugopal says poll watchers also witnessed some election irregularities on election day. 

“We were documenting issues and voters’ experiences,” she said. “Our legal team is reviewing them and deciding if there’s something that needs to happen next.” 

County commissioner Bruce Adams will be up for reelection next November, because he had already occupied his seat for two years going into the 2018 special election. Grayeyes and Maryboy won their seats last year, and will be up for reelection in 2022. 

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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