Commissioners continue to consider changes to voting districts, will hold Nov. 30 hearing

After several weeks of discussions and presentations regarding redistricting, the San Juan County Commission is holding a virtual public meeting on Tuesday, November 30 at 6 p.m.

The virtual meeting will provide opportunity for residents to learn about map proposals and provide public input. 

Members of the San Juan County Commission heard presentations and public comments on redistricting efforts for the county at their November 16 meeting.

Redistricting occurs every ten years following the US Census. Redistricting is when voting district boundaries are redrawn to make sure populations are equally represented in legislative bodies.

The San Juan County Commission is tasked with redistricting the San Juan School Board and the County Commission boundaries.

San Juan County most recently redistricted in 2018 under the direction of Federal Judge Robert Shelby as the result of a 2015 voting rights lawsuit filed against San Juan County by the Navajo Nation.

The following elections, in 2018, resulted in a historic first of two Native Americans serving on the county commission.

Now, following the 2020 Census, it is time to redistrict San Juan County again.

The county commission hired a redistricting expert, Bill Cooper, who has more than 35 years of experience. He also served as an expert for the Navajo Nation in the 2015 lawsuit against the county.

At their most recent meeting, Cooper provided three additional commission district maps and one additional school board map for the county commission to consider.

In addition to Cooper’s maps, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission is also submitting maps with their recommendations for redistricting, those maps are available to view at the county website.

While there are four maps from Cooper for consideration in the county commission, options A and B would keep boundaries relatively similar to the current commission districts, while options C and D would propose more dramatic changes.

As previously reported, Option A would move 366 residents of Blanding City from one district to another to bring populations into balance. The changes include moving 26 residents northeast of Blanding from district one to district three and moving the entirety of White Mesa – 178 reported residents – from district two to district three.

This least change plan would move just 3.6 percent of the adult population of San Juan County into a different commission district.

Option B would move 4.8 percent of adults in the county, with 684 Blanding residents shifting to different districts and the 49 residents in the Dennehotso Chapter moving from district two to district three. White Mesa would remain in District two.

The current county commission district boundaries split Blanding City in districts one and two, with district three also approaching near Blanding City limits, including populated areas south and east of town.

Options C and D would see most of the Blanding area within a single district, something that Blanding City Council members have been advocating over the past few months.

That would be a larger shakeup of the current boundaries. Option C would move 32.2 percent of county adults into new boundaries, while Option D would move 37.8 percent of the adults.

Option C would see 75 percent of Blanding placed in District 1, with the southeast quadrant of Blanding in District 3. The plan would also divide the Red Mesa Chapter in Districts 2 and 3.

Option D would place all of Blanding in District one, as well as the west side of Monticello. The east side of Monticello would be placed in District 3. Red Mesa Chapter would also be divided in Districts 2 and 3.

For the San Juan School Board Districts, Cooper also presented an Option B. Under the option, 6.3 percent of the voting age population would shift into a new district, compared to 7.2 percent under Option A.

After further evaluation, Cooper realized there were significant problems with Option A, including the removal of Whitehorse High School from the Montezuma Creek area and an incumbent conflict that would have placed board members Steven Black and Lucille Cody in the same district.

Option B would place Black in District 3 and Cody in District 4. Other changes include shifting White Rocks from District 5 to District 3. Another change would add District 4 population in the Aneth Chapter, along with non-reservation areas north and northeast of Blanding previously in District 1.

At the commission meeting, the Director for the office of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission also spoke in public comment. Leonard Gorman said his office is also providing a recommended map for both the county commission and school board maps, they are available on the county website.

Gorman expressed his concerns with Options C and D, “What is the community relationship, community of interest, between Navajo Mountain, Oljato, and Dennehotso, with Spanish Valley?

“The answer is none; there’s no community of interest. If you see District 2 running all the way from the western corner of the county to the northeast corner, there’s no community relationships at all.

“Likewise for District 3 in both proposals, options C and D – they present challenges in the area of community of interests.”

Gorman also expressed concern with the other County Commission maps. Gorman said Districts 2 and 3 in the commission maps need a balance of Native American voting age population.

The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission map also varies from Option B for the school board.

“[District 5] needs to be unpacked so that it could share those Native American voting age population among four districts of the five,” said Gorman. “Those would be Districts 2, 3, 4 and 5.

“The Navajo Nation submitted a plan this morning that has District 2 at 27 percent Native American voting age population, District 4 at 78 percent, District 3 at 65 percent and District 5 at 79 percent.”

At their November 16 meeting, the commission also heard public comment on the matter.

Navajo Mountain resident Jeff Begay and southern county resident Tara Benally each expressed support for Commission Option B map.

Benally said the option allows commissioners to represent constituencies from both “urban” and rural areas in the county.

“Option B is in compliance with the federal court redistricting standards, which will help protect the county from future litigation and associated costs,” said Benally. “They preserve the core of the 2018 court ordered district, which reduces confusion for voters by minimizing voters moved to new districts.”

School Board member Nelson Yellowman spoke at the meeting advocating for presentations of maps and public meetings on redistricting.

School board member Lucille Cody also spoke opposing the School Board Option A plan that would separate Whitehorse High School and Montezuma Creek in the district.

Monticello resident Doug Allen also spoke on redistricting at the meeting. Allen suggested the county revert to at-large voting, which would dissolve boundaries and mean each commissioner would be elected through a county-wide election.

“If the lawsuit was brought because Native Americans felt like they weren’t being represented well in San Juan County,” said Allen, “I can understand that at the time, but it doesn’t appear to me that Native Americans are a minority in this county.

“In every one of these districting things, we have one district that is predominately white and the others. If you want to do it fair, let’s go back to at-large.”

County Administrator Mack McDonald also requested that if any map does not meet legal requirements, that it be removed from consideration. 

“If it’s not a viable solution, I don’t want to continue to present them and have options A through F because, if legally they don’t meet all of the requirements from the court order, then I don’t think it’s necessary that we continue to present them,” said McDonald.

A Board of Commissioners meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, November 30 at 6 p.m. The meeting will also be available to watch and participate in via broadcast.

At their meeting, the commission also approved a purchase of a truck for the Road Department.

Road Superintendent TJ Adair requested the county purchase the pickup truck the department has been leasing, noting a shortage of vehicles nationwide. The purchase is within the county budget.

The Commission also upgraded the county workplace drug policy. In addition to updated definitions, the policy change gives direction for how to handle an employee reporting using a prescription drug that may impair ability to perform and safety sensitive functions.

The Commission also approved an agreement that will have them act as a pass-through agent of funds to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to design the Westwater infrastructure system.

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