The San Juan County Commission voted unanimously on Monday to take no further action in a Native American voting rights case that led to the redistricting of the county in 2017.
The 10th Circuit Court ruled against the county’s appeal of the redistricting decision earlier this month. Now the county has to figure out how to foot the bill for the lawsuit, which could run into the millions.
In voting, Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy stated his view that the county had intended to undermine the voting rights of Native Americans in the past, and that it would now have to pay for that action.
“We lost a lot of money, and I do believe we should leave it alone and leave it as is,” he said.
The Navajo Nation sued the county in 2012, arguing Navajo residents were disenfranchised in county commission and school board elections. A district court ruled in favor of the Navajo Nation in 2017 and drew new county voting districts.
Democrats Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes were elected to the commission in 2018 as a result. The new districts created one majority-Navajo district, one swing district, and one majority-Anglo district. It was the previous county commission that appealed the redistricting decision.
Bruce Adams, who has been on the San Juan County Commision for 14 years, emphasized his hopes that the county negotiate with the Navajo Nation on attorney’s fees. He stated in the meeting that the county attorney has contacted the Navajo Nation’s attorneys and that the tribal government said it is willing to negotiate.
“With that in mind,” Adams said. “I would second the motion to end any further action based on the 10th Circuit Court decision.”
Adams said he hopes that an agreement will benefit residents living on the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation. He suggested the county could negotiate to spend some money on the reservation in return for a reduction in the amount of legal fees the county owes.
The case will now go back to the district court, which could award over $3 million in attorney’s fees to be paid to the Navajo Nation.
The county has a total operating budget of around $20 million this year. There is no line item to pay the legal fees from this case. County Administrator David Everitt said they anticipate spending all incoming revenue this year, but that the county could borrow from its $18 million road fund. That money would eventually have to be paid back though, which could result in a property tax increase or cost-cutting measures such as layoffs.
The county has around $2.5 million saved in its general fund balance, but Everitt said using that money would make the budgeting process harder going forward.
Finally, there is approximately $6 million in the county’s tax stability fund, which is money generated in interest on oil and gas revenues. But this fund can only be accessed through a county-wide referendum, Everitt said.
Blanding City Councilwoman Cheryl Bowers, who attended Monday’s meeting, expressed discontent with the commission’s decision to give up on the case and accept the new districts. The 2017 redistricting process put parts of Blanding in each of the three new commission districts. The city, which is the largest in San Juan County, filed an amicus brief in support of the county’s appeal of the redistricting decision.
“I’m frustrated that they didn’t ask for input from the City of Blanding,” she said. “It looks like they don’t care about Blanding. That’s what it looks like to me.”