The San Juan County Commission met in Monument Valley on Tuesday to conduct its bimonthly meeting. It was the first time the commission has ever met on the Navajo Nation, according to Commissioner Willie Grayeyes. More than 50 people attended the meeting, around two-thirds of whom were Navajo.
Commission meetings are usually held in the county seat of Monticello, at least an hour away from the Navajo Nation, which overlaps with the southern part of the county. Commissioners Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes were both elected to office last year, making this the first Navajo-majority San Juan County Commission. The two voted in May to hold every third meeting outside the county seat. Tuesday’s meeting was the first.
In a work session prior to the meeting, the commissioners discussed the condition of roads on the reservation that overlap with the county.
“The Navajo Department of Transportation (NDOT) asserted jurisdiction over the roads in April 2018 and the county ceased doing maintenance on the roads, accordingly,” Interim County Administrator David Everitt said. “Dropping the roads from the county’s inventory resulted in a loss of approximately $1 million in state funding for road repairs.”
But NDOT has been unable to adequately maintain the roads, according to the commissioners and local residents, leading to worsening conditions.
“Material that they laid on the existing roads are eroding, and there’s a ton of pot holes. One of the roads that they were doing, they gravelled it only half way and when it rains it really gets muddy,” said Monument Valley resident Harve Holiday. “The Navajo Department of Transportation took on something they couldn’t handle.”
The Navajo Department of Transportation did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication on Wednesday.
Commissioner Bruce Adams, the only non-native county commissioner, said he wants to fix the issue by bringing maintenance back to the county.
“We’ll submit the bills to [Utah Department of Public Safety] for [county road maintenance] funds, and I’ll hand carry that request to Sen. Hinkins and Gov. Herbert. I think that can get resolved fairly quick and fairly easy,” he said.
Maryboy thanked Adams for his offer to pursue the reinstatement of road maintenance funding, but Grayeyes questioned why Adams had waited so long to suggest the solution.
“Bruce has already been involved in this before we came to the commission. Holding back information that would continue to work up to this time is very disturbing to me. That could have easily been fixed, way back,” Greyeyes said.
Adams responded that his intention in waiting to address the issue was to honor “Native American sovereignty.”
After the contentious work session, Monument Valley resident Roy V. Smith opened the meeting with a prayer in both Navajo and English. He used the opportunity to call for unity and cooperation.
But conflict returned in the form of public comments.
Blanding resident Wendy Black stated her opposition to the commissioner’s decision to hold the meeting in Monument Valley and requested the county do a study on the costs associated with holding them away from Monticello.
“My concern is about the remoteness of these commission meetings. The county employees are traveling and putting unnecessary miles on their vehicles,” she said. “Has there been a cost analysis done on these remote meetings?”
Monument Valley resident Davina Smith remarked on the importance of holding meetings outside the county seat, responding to Black.
“I see a number of my community members here because this is important for us. And so, roads, water, healthcare, education, those are things we are always left not able to speak to,” she said. “We heard in the prayer about unity, and that’s something we need to be mindful and respectful of. I’m looking at you, Wendy.”
Other local residents raised concerns with the lack of water infrastructure in Monument Valley, and asked the commission to look into building a community center for Monument Valley and the surrounding area.
After the meeting, Commissioner Grayeyes, who lives in Navajo Mountain, said he was happy with the number of local residents who attended the meeting.
“I think the experience in itself did provide some insight and education into how the county government functions, so they will hopefully be not afraid to participate [in] these types of functions in the future,” he said, adding that he wished the local attendees would have taken the opportunity to ask the commissioners more questions.
The San Juan County Commission will hold its next meetings at the county seat in Monticello on August 6 and in Bluff on August 20.
Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.