Navajo Nation group seeks to redistrict Commission seats
by Anna Thayn
Sep 14, 2011 | 5546 views | 0 0 comments | 584 584 recommendations | email to a friend | print

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A request to adjust county commission boundaries was presented at the September 12 meeting of the San Juan County Commission. Leonard Gorman, Executive Director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Division, presented a proposal to redistrict the three commission districts in San Juan County. 

Gorman said his office works on redistricting issues in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah following the U.S. Census every ten years.  He adds that the 2010 Census shows just over 14,000 people in San Juan County, of which 7,400 are Native American.  County officials said they have yet to receive Census information showing racial breakdowns.

The proposal would create three new districts of equal population. The “northern” district would be comprised mostly of Anglos and a 5.9 percent Native American population. 

The two other districts would have Native American populations of 77 percent and 67 percent each. 

Based on the map provided to the commission, the City of Blanding would be an intersection of the three districts, with portions of the city in each of the three proposed districts.

Gorman said the proposal would increase the participation and voting strength of Native Americans in San Juan County.  Gorman said it would provide the opportunity to elect two Native American commissioners to the governing body. He reports that the Navajo Nation Council and Utah Navajo Commission support the redistricting proposal, as do the Aneth and Red Mesa Chapters.  

Gorman suggested that a legal decision regarding elections my have been intended to segregate the Navajo people from the rest of San Juan County. He added that he has not been able to locate the decision at this time. 

A Native American can run for office in any district where they live.  Gorman said they would have a better opportunity to be elected based on the proposed redistricting.

Gorman suggested that a 60 percent population of Native Americans is needed to give a Native American candidate a better chance at being elected. Commissioner Bruce Adams questioned if the Anglo population would agree with the logic or if they feel that a 50/50 chance is sufficient for fairness.

Adams discussed a 1984 court order which created the three voting districts.  Adams said that the districts were set up to make the population split as close to a 50 percent Anglo and 50 percent Native American ratio as was possible.  Adams’ district includes the northern end of San Juan County, in addition to Halls Crossing, Oljato and Navajo Mountain. 

The Blanding and White Mesa areas make up a second district, represented by Commissioner Phil Lyman. There is speculation that the new census shows 40 percent of Blanding is Native American. 

The final district, represented by Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, is made up of Bluff and precincts in the southeast corner of the county, including Montezuma Creek, Aneth, and Red Mesa. It is primarily Native American in population.

County Clerk Norman Johnson said there has not been a significant change to the population of the county or to voting districts since the 1984 court order. As a result, the boundaries of the commission districts have not been changed. 

Deputy County Attorney Walter Bird said that the county was told in 1984 to use population numbers to make a proposal for voting districts. The proposal was accepted by the federal judge and is currently still being imposed.

Bird said that the U.S. Department of Justice has monitored the county voting and election process since that time. Johnson said that during his 12 years of monitoring, the county has complied fully with all requirements to give equal access to all citizens of San Juan County.

Adams said he is not convinced anything is broken in the current system. “It seems to be a fair decree and provides an opportunity for Native Americans to be elected in all three districts,” he said.  

Lyman said he wouldn’t be bothered if all three commissioners are Native American but doesn’t see the wisdom of splitting Blanding into three commission districts.

Lyman asked if the proposal isn’t segregation if it creates a district that is 95 percent Anglo, if Anglos are now the minority race in the county. Lyman questioned the wisdom of a plan which places the majority of the taxable property in the county in a single district.

Gorman said his office is preparing for lawsuits, if needed. He added that since the county has not made an effort to look at redistricting, the Navajo Nation is “ahead of the game” in collecting data if they determine a need to go to the court and look at redistricting.

Lyman asked if the group would support doing away with districts and going to an election-at-large process if the county population is 60 percent Native American.  Gorman said that commission support of his proposal would help in that regard.

Adams told Gorman, “I’m not advising you what to do, but we are trying to follow the court decree in San Juan County.”

Adams said that it is a live issue before the District and Federal courts, and he is inclined to follow the court order until told to do otherwise.   Bird echoed that the issue remains before the courts and the County position is to follow the order.

Maryboy praised the Utah Navajo Commission for their work on an issue that is so important to Utah Navajos. He added that it is a good opportunity to look at available options and see what steps can be taken to represent Native Americans in the best possible way.
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