Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Historic Day In San Juan County As Majority Native American Commission Takes Office

Photo of San Juan County commission swearing in
Judy Fahys/KUER
San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes looks on Monday as Judge Lyon W. Hazleton finalizes paperwork following the swearing in of county officials in Monticello. The commision now has a Native-American majority, the first in Utah.

MONTICELLO — In an historic first, Native Americans hold the majority on the San Juan County Commission following a packed swearing in ceremony Monday in Monticello.

People jammed the San Juan County Commission chambers as a judge administered the oath of office to a half-dozen county officials. Among them were incoming Democratic commissioners, Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy, both Navajos and supporters of the controversial Bears Ears National Monument.

For years, Republicans have dominated San Juan County government. But now San Juan County is the first county in Utah to have a local governing majority of Native Americans.


“I’m sure it’s a shock - a culture shock - to most of you that we have two Native Americans sitting on the county seat,” said Maryboy, who’s served on the commission previously. “Nevertheless, we will do what we can to make better lives for those of you that reside in San Juan County.”


All three members of the new commissioners spoke to the crowd after taking oath. Republican Bruce Adams, who’s just beginning his fifth commission term, invited county residents to speak freely with all of the commissioners and to attend their twice-monthly meetings. He noted that the county budget will be difficult to balance after three years of deficits that have sometimes been higher than $1 million.


“I look forward to working with both of these guys,” Adams said.


Despite the upbeat message, the room had an undercurrent of tension. During the hour of the swearing-in ceremony, Grayeyes was served with legal papers for a new lawsuit challenging his Utah residency.


Kelly Laws, the Republican contender for Greyeyes’ seat in November, filed a lawsuit on Dec. 28 in the state’s 7th District Court disputing the Democrat’s eligibility as a commissioner. The suit alleges Grayeyes is not a resident of San Juan County or even Utah, but the first-time commissioner waved off the idea that he’s not eligible to serve.


“Eligibility — certainly I’m eligible for it,” Grayeyes said in an interview.


A county clerk ruled Grayeyes ineligible to run earlier this year, but U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby eventually put his name back on the ballot. Greyeyes narrowly won the seat vacated by Phil Lyman, who was elected to the State Legislature in November.


The same judge ordered San Juan County to redraw its district boundaries in 2017 after determining that they amounted to racial gerrymandering. San Juan County is just under two-thirds Native American, but representation on the commission was skewed because of the district lines. New maps were also ordered for the school board districts.


Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.