Updated 1:45 p.m. MDT 8/24/19
A little more than six months after the swearing-in of San Juan County’s first majority-Navajo County Commission, long-simmering tension brought on by years of distrust, frustration and, at times, prejudice is bubbling over.
In a remote corner of the state that is divided politically and demographically, allegations ranging from political misconduct to racism are flying in both directions. With the mounting hostility comes a push to change county government and even talk of splitting the county in two.
These tensions were evident at two town-hall meetings held this week, the first of which was held in Monticello on Wednesday night.
Over the course of two hours at the Monticello High School auditorium in a meeting attended by former House Speaker Greg Hughes and state Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, attendees aired a host of grievances. They voiced frustration over the designation of Bears Ears National Monument under the Obama administration and the recent redistricting of the county, which ultimately led to the majority-Navajo commission.
Over 100 people attended the event, according to organizers. Some of the most vocal attendees were Navajo residents of San Juan County who oppose the Bears Ears monument and say the Navajo commissioners don’t represent them.
“Why go through the process of having a commission when they’re not listening to any of their constituents?” McCracken Mesa resident April Charley said.
Kim Henderson, who organized the event, said she wanted to provide a forum for people to speak openly about political issues. She publicized the event at the San Juan County Fair, and by going door-to-door in Monticello.
“The tension has gotten to the point in San Juan County that it’s important to have open dialogue amongst ourselves,” she said. “I wish there would have been a more diverse audience, because I feel like the majority of people in San Juan County have more in common than not.”
Still, Henderson said she was happy with the meeting, and said she would like to hold town halls in Blanding and Bluff.
Monticello resident Shannon Brooks, who helped moderate the event, said the town hall was also a way for residents to stand up to the County Commission.
“We have for the last eight months tried to get our voices heard in the county commission and we have not been successful,” he said. “They shut us down. They don’t listen.”
Brooks and Henderson are part of a handful of residents who have followed the County Commission closely since Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes were elected last year, which flipped the power balance on the three-person commission from Republican to Democrat. The election came after a federal judge drew new voting districts in the county, based on a lawsuit brought by the Navajo Nation.
That decision didn’t sit well with many of the county’s residents, and they have raised numerous concerns about the conduct of the Navajo commissioners. Blanding Mayor Joe Lyman, for instance, says the two violated the open meetings act by communicating with their personal lawyer during a commission meeting.
“Steven Boos absolutely sat at the back of the room and sent text messages to those two commissioners that guided them in conducting the meeting and asking questions. Everybody knows. It was as obvious as it could possibly be,” Lyman said.
In response to this allegation, Grayeyes said he receives a lot of calls during commission meetings, and does not remember all of them. Maryboy and Boos did not respond to KUER’s requests for comment.
Lyman has collected enough signatures to prompt a special election in November to ask voters if they want to explore changing the form of the county government. If residents vote in favor of an exploration, Lyman will be in charge of selecting a committee to make a recommendation for a new form of government, which will go back to voters for approval.
Lyman presented his plan at the town hall, saying he’s long been in favor of adding more commissioners.
“I believe the five-member commission better represents every citizen of the county, and I’ve felt that way for decades, but there’s never been an opportunity before now when people might actually consider a change,” he said.
Allegations Of Racism
But County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy said he believes the effort is racially motivated. At a commission meeting on Tuesday, he said the aim is to remove Grayeyes and him from power.
“They just clearly don’t want to deal with Willie and I,” he said. “As long as there are two Navajos on [the commission], they’re going to bellyache.”
Maryboy’s brother, Mark, took that sentiment a step further Thursday at a separate, sparsely attended town hall in Mexican Water, calling those who support the change in government racists.
Mark Maryboy, who was the first Navajo in the state to be elected to a county commission, now sits on the boards of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Utah Dine Bikeyah, which advocated for the designation of the Bears Ears monument.
After giving an update on the legal battle over the Trump administration’s reduction of the Bears Ears monument, Mark Maryboy turned his attention to the purported effort to unseat his brother with incendiary charges against those he sees as responsible.
“This initiative is being driven by the white people, the racist Mormons from Blanding and Monticello. Redneck Mormons, that’s what they are,” he said. “They’re probably all a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”
For Cheryl Bowers, a Blanding city councilwoman who attended the meeting in Mexican Water and helped organize the Monticello town hall, the statements were completely unexpected.
“I honestly drove [to Mexican Water] thinking, ‘Maybe I can listen to what they have to say, and what their ideas are, and what thoughts they’re having, and see what our differences are. Maybe I can stand up and say something that will be helpful’,” she said.
Bowers was one of a small group of Blanding residents who attended the meeting at the invitation of some Navajo women who were also at the town hall in Monticello, including Charley. When Mark Maryboy made comments about people from Blanding and Monticello being racists, Charley protested, which resulted in a yelling match.
When some members of the group called Maryboy a liar, he said they should “go back to Missouri,” a historical reference to an extermination order issued for Mormons in 1838, which initiated their migration to Nauvoo, Ill.
At that point, Maryboy left the room and the Blanding residents were asked to leave. After being kicked out of the meeting, Bowers said she was shocked and hurt by Maryboy’s behavior — and by his brother’s failure to step in.
“I believe that as a county commissioner, he had an obligation to stop that conversation that was occurring, because he represents me too,” she said.
She also mentioned an effort to split the county by state Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, who first floated the idea in February and presented the idea again this week at the town hall in Monticello.
“My gut hurts because of what just happened,” Bowers said. “I love this county. I love everyone in this county. And I want to support it and see it stay together, and not see it divided. Because it feels very divided.”
Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include comments from Kim Henderson, who organized the Monticello town hall event, and San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes.