Judge Shelby is presiding over a lawsuit between the Navajo Nation and San Juan County over election issues. His court order required that the county develop the restructured voting districts before a January 28 hearing.
San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws, along with Attorney Britton Butterfield, of Suitter Axland, PLLC and Kimball Brace, of Election Data Services, presented the proposed map to redistrict the voting districts to the San Juan County Commission on January 19. The proposal was eventually accepted by a 3-0 vote of the Commissioners.
The county had developed the new plans with the direction that all five voting districts be of equal size. The boundaries of the previous voting districts hadn’t changed since the 1990s, and the districts no longer had an equivalent number of people.
The previous districts followed precinct boundaries precisely and generally followed high school boundaries. As a result, areas which fed students to a particular high school were generally in the same voting district.
Laws explained that the new boundaries tried to follow existing precinct boundaries and retain the community school concept where it was possible.
The approved proposal follows the precinct boundaries in 14 of the 20 voting districts. The remainder of the precincts are split between two or three voting districts.
The voting districts are the same size in the approved map, with a total variation of ten people in a county with more than 14,000 people. Previously, the largest voting district had several hundred more voters than the smallest district.
The most significant changes are in the previously smallest district, District 5, which is currently represented by Nelson Yellowman. Yellowman’s district, which previously included three precincts, will now include portions of eight precincts.
There was some confusion at the commission meeting about the possible creation of a sixth voting district. School Superintendent Doug Wright said that the size of boards is set by the state. While large school districts can have seven board members, Wright said, “We are a long way from having seven board members.”
Laws explained that setting up the districts strictly by population is tricky for several reasons. Many residents list only a Post Office Box as an address. The new districts were populated by using Census Blocks rather than precinct boundaries.
The voting districts can be redrawn after each Census. As a result, the rulings on the matters by Judge Shelby will run through the 2020 Census, after which the district boundaries can be redrawn again.
Observers at the commission meeting seemed very interested in the racial composition of members of the proposed voting districts.
At the current time, and under the newly approved map, two of the districts have a strong Anglo majority and two have a strong Native American majority.
Despite the fact that District #3 currently has a population that is 58 percent Native American, the district has always elected an Anglo representative. Since the meeting, it has been determined that the Native American population in the new third district is approximately 53 percent.
Proposals for the redistricting submitted earlier by the Navajo Nation include a Native American population of more than 65 percent in three of the five voting districts.
Approximately 50.4 percent of students in the San Juan School District are Native American, while 45.8 percent are Anglo.
In other matters at the January 19 Commission meeting, Commissioners spoke of the January 18 passing of former county commissioner Bill Redd. They spoke of his accomplishments during his service and the book he wrote on Statehood. In his remembrance, the county will plant a tree on the grounds of the county administration building.
Tina Krutsky and Deborah Westfall, members of the Bluff City Historic Preservation Committee, shared a proposal for a 7.5 mile non-motorized trail along the San Juan River in the Bluff valley. There will be one trail for horseback riders and another for passive recreation, which includes walking, running, and biking.
Because the proposed trails cross Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, they will need to comply with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) guidelines. One guideline is to complete an environmental survey, which must then be presented at a public hearing and allow for public comment.
The group will eventually need a letter of support from the commission. The goal of this meeting was to field questions and answer any concerns early in the process, in hopes they will get the needed approval when it is needed.
Commissioner Benally has attended some of the committee meetings. She said she is pleased to see the progress they have made in the interim.
The group has Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) with the private land owners whose land the trails will cross. Commissioner Lyman said the trail system would be a benefit to the residents of Bluff, as well as many visitors to the area.
Two new hires were approved as Senior Center Aides in Blanding and Monticello. They are Regina Holiday and Marlaina Patterson.
Jerry Murdock and Craig Simpson are new appointments to the Tourism Tax Advisory Board, while Rick Reeb and Teri Paul were reappointed to serve another term. Genevieve Ford was appointed to the library board.
Contracts were unanimously renewed for Jviation as the county airport consultant and Jones and DeMille as the civil engineer consultant.
(Staff writer Roma Young contributed to this story.)