There is only one measure on the ballot this year in San Juan County. It asks voters if they think the county should explore changing its form of government, which is currently a three-member commission. That could mean more commissioners and new districts. And that’s got some residents concerned.
Tara Benally grew up in San Juan County on the Navajo Nation. She works for the San Juan Democratic Party, and she’s been doing voter outreach on the Navajo reservation for the past two years.
Last year, she helped San Juan County elect its first majority-Navajo commission. This year, she’s working to keep it. At least that’s how she and others in the county see things.
“We’re on the right path right now with the two Navajo commissioners,” she said. “I wish the rest of the county would see that and understand that.”
The election was prompted by the mayor of Blanding, Joe Lyman, who formed a group of five petitioners in January. Together, they collected enough signatures to put the question of whether the county should explore changing its form of government to a vote. If Proposition 10 passes, Lyman and the other petitioners will select a committee to study the county’s government and recommend a new one. That suggestion would then go back to voters for approval.
Some people in the county, including Navajo Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, have said the election is driven by a desire to remove him and his fellow Navajo commissioner, Willie Grayeyes, from power. But Lyman rejects that.
“My motivation is restoring representation to Blanding,” he said.
With a population of 3,700, Blanding is the largest town in the county, and it used to be in one commission district. But the town was split into three districts after the county lost a voting rights lawsuit in 2017. The Navajo Nation sued the county in 2012, claiming it had disenfranchised Native voters by refusing to update voting districts based on population growth. A federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and ordered new voting districts be drawn in 2018.
Lyman says the election that followed made it clear that Blanding isn’t represented. Two Navajo Democrats won seats on the commission, along with one non-Native Republican from neighboring Monticello.
“Not one of those commissioners, not one of the three, needed one vote from Blanding to be elected. We’ve been unfairly divided,” he said.
At a town hall in August, Lyman presented his plan as a democratic solution: voters can decide if the current government is working for them, or not.
“In November, there will be a question on the ballot, and every registered voter will have an opportunity to voice their opinion,” he said. “The question simply is, ‘Should we form a committee to do a study to change the form of government?’ That’s all.”
But Benally says it’s not that simple. She has been doing voter outreach on the Navajo Nation since September.
“People are confused because they saw how hard we worked last year to get the two Navajo commissioners,” she said. “So we have to explain that there are people up north who now feel like they are underrepresented.”
She visited an elderly couple a few weeks ago, who said they were surprised to get ballots in the mail.
“What is going on? What is this for? We’re asking each other, and we don’t know,” the Navajo woman said. She and her husband asked not to be identified.
The election is causing confusion off the reservation, too.
Blanding City Councilwoman Cheryl Bowers said she had a lot of questions when she first received her ballot in the mail. “Like, can we afford a bigger commission? Do we need a separation of powers? The group that we give the power to, they’re not elected, and is that too much power for one group?”
At a town hall in Blanding in early October, Bowers explained the county government change process, as it’s laid out in state code. People expressed confusion about the process, as well as frustration over the county’s options.
Blanding resident Lynn Stevens said he believes the election is pointless, citing the county’s legal history. The federal government sued the county in 1984, resulting in a switch from at-large elections to commission districts. Those districts stayed in place until a federal court mandated redistricting last year.
“The federal government has taken over the county’s elections,” he said. “And that ain’t gonna change. So we’ve got to live with it.”
Attorney Steven Boos represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and he said Stevens is right. He claims there’s no way to draw districts that restore power to the county’s non-Native residents without violating the Voting Rights Act.
“Frankly, I haven’t understood where the organizers think they’re going with this,” he said. “Because, effectively, you could end up with a larger commission that costs taxpayers extra money, and still end up with an Indian majority.”
But Mayor Lyman says there are ways to achieve better representation for Blanding by changing the county government, although he wouldn’t specify them.
“I would rather not publish my ideas because the committee, if there is one, needs to look at it all fresh without preconceptions about what may be best,” he said.
Still, the proposition has been a hard sell.
Republican Phil Lyman is a former county commissioner who now represents San Juan County in the Utah House of Representatives. He says he doesn’t think expanding the commission will solve the county’s underlying problem, which he says are vast cultural differences between the northern and southern communities, as well as jurisdictional issues with the Navajo Nation.
“There’s pros and cons,” he said. “It might bring some more voices to the dialogue, but that’s a mixed bag too. It could slow things down.”
Councilwoman Bowers said that, despite her concerns, she eventually decided to vote yes.
“I think we need more commissioners to help us make decisions and write laws, and I hope it gives Blanding a chance to have a commissioner,” she said.
But she’s concerned the proposition is not going to pass. The county’s Republican party is noticeably inactive, and Bowers says no one is picking up the slack.
“I don’t know where the Republican party stands on this. And I’ve seen no outreach or anything saying, ‘Vote yes.’ So, it’s been frustrating, because I feel like both sides aren’t being represented.”
Meanwhile, Benally is hopeful about the outcome of the election. The San Juan Democrats have been airing radio ads on the reservation telling people to vote against the proposition, and paying people to do outreach.
“The radio ads have put the information forward, so with us following up doing door-to-door, we’ll get there,” she said.
Election day is November 5.