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San Juan County Will Pay Millions To Navajo Nation, After Losing Voting Rights Case Appeal

Two Navajo men face each other for a conversation during a commission meeting.
Kate Groetzinger
Democrats Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes were elected to the San Juan County Commission in 2018, following a redistricting of the county.

Following a five-hour mediation process on Friday, San Juan County has agreed to pay the Navajo Nation $2.6 million in attorney’s fees. The county is responsible for compensation after losing a voting rights case brought by the Nation in 2012. 

According to county officials, the Navajo Nation requested $3.4 million, but the county was able to negotiate the total down and set up a payment schedule. The county will pay $1.3 million in a lump sum in 2020, and the rest of the balance over the following seven years. 

The case was first decided in 2017, and the county’s voting boundaries were redrawn. That resulted in the 2018 election of the county’s first majority-Navajo commission. The county appealed that decision, but it was upheld in federal court earlier this year. The county commission voted to drop the case in July, rather than re-appeal.

Commissioner Bruce Adams and Interim County Administrator David Everitt represented the county in the mediation process. When asked whether the commission is happy with the agreement, San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said, “Well, we approved it.” 

Man in green shirt sits in chair making exasperated expression.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
Commissioner Bruce Adams participated in the mediation process on behalf of San Juan County.

Navajo commissioners Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy chose not to take part in Friday’s mediation process, since they both have worked with the Navajo Nation’s lawyer, Steven Boos, in the past. 

“This brings a difficult chapter in San Juan County’s history to a close,” Maryboy said in a statement on the settlement. “It’s time to move forward and stay focused on the business of running this county. My goal now is to have this settlement affect San Juan County’s residents as little as possible as we figure out how to best manage this obligation over the next few years.” 

Everitt said that while the first payment will put some pressure on the county’s coffers, “It’s not catastrophic.” 

The county’s general fund balance was $2.7 million at the beginning of this year, but that number could take a dip, Everitt said, because the commission recently approved salary increases for some county employees. The county also received about $200,000 less than it expected this year from the federal government’s Payment In Lieu of Taxes program, Everitt added. 

San Juan County has the option to borrow money from one of its dedicated funds — like the B-Roads Fund, which holds around $18 million — to make the first payment, Everitt said. But that money would eventually have to be paid back with interest.

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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