San Juan County Commission Holds First Ever Meeting At Navajo Mountain, Despite Snowy Weather
NAVAJO MOUNTAIN — Big, wet snowflakes fell on this small community on the Navajo Nation yesterday, blanketing its red dirt roads and thwarting the San Juan County Commission’s latest attempt to hear from residents of the Utah Navajo strip.
Known as Naatsis'áán, or Head of the Earth, in Navajo, the community is a three-hour drive from the county seat of Monticello, which means few residents ever make the trip for commission meetings. So, for the first time ever, the commission decided to bring the meeting to them. But heavy snow interfered with the plan, and only around 10 people showed up.
Chapter President Hank Stevens, a locally elected representative, said he expected three times that many people.
“Navajo Mountain is so remote – we only have one access road – so if we have bad weather conditions, like snow, then our numbers will drop,” he explained.
Holding meetings outside of Monticello is one of the most tangible changes enacted by the Navajo-majority commission since the election of tribal members Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy in 2018. The first such meeting took place in Monument Valley last summer and was well-attended.
According to a resolution passed earlier this year, the commission plans to hold three more meetings on the Navajo Nation by the end of 2020.
But not everyone is on board with the change. At the commission meeting in Monument Valley, Blanding resident Wendy Black raised concerns about the cost of holding meetings outside the county seat. She requested a study to quantify the costs, but that has yet to be done, according to County Administrator Mack McDonald.
County Attorney Kendall Laws has said that holding regular meetings away from Monticello could violate the law. According to state law, “If approved by a vote of the county legislative body, a county legislative body may hold an occasional meeting outside the county seat as the public business requires.”
Laws has interpreted this to mean only “special meetings” — which are subject to separate rules under state law — can be held outside the county seat of Monticello. But David Everitt, a former lawyer who served as interim county administrator for part of last year, interpreted the law differently. He said holding regular meetings outside the county seat is likely legal, so long as the majority of meetings still occur in Monticello.
“When you think about what’s the spirit of the law, my guess would be that there is a lot of intent around people having access to those meetings, in particular in a place like San Juan County,” Everitt added, noting that the size of the county makes it hard for some residents to attend commission meetings.
The 2020 meeting schedule passed by the commission refers to all meetings outside of Monticello as “special meetings.” However, the meeting in Navajo Mountain mostly followed the format of regular San Juan County Commission meetings closely.
Despite the low turnout, Stevens said he’s happy the commission held a meeting in Navajo Mountain.
“Overall, I think it’s a beginning,” he said. “So, being optimistic, maybe we’ll host another one next year.”
Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi