Commissioners to hire redistricting expert

The San Juan County Commission discussed professional evaluation of census data related to elections, illegal dumping in the county, an upgrade to the public safety building, and a Spanish Valley flood study at their May 18 meeting.

The commission discussed and approved the hiring of Bill Cooper to assess the 2020 Census data for San Juan County. If needed, Cooper will help draw new election district maps for the County Commission and the School Board based on the data.

Since 1986, Cooper has prepared proposed redistricting maps of approximately 700 jurisdictions. Cooper was also a consultant and expert for the Navajo Nation in their 2015 lawsuit against San Juan County regarding voting rights.

Commissioner Maryboy, who brought the item to the commission agenda, argued that hiring Cooper would be the financially responsible thing to do as he compared Cooper’s $5,000 charge for 40 hours of work to the nearly four million dollars the county paid in legal fees as a result of the 2015 Navajo Nation voting rights lawsuit.

“We lost a lot of money, not only the Navajos but everybody in San Juan County,” said Maryboy. “All the way from Spanish Valley to the river, Navajo Mountain and Aneth. We’re ok because we’re sitting in the office, but we lost a lot of money. Right now redistricting is going to be happening all over and somebody’s going to be hiring this guy. Whoever hires this guy, they’re going to be winning cases.”

During the public comment period, County Clerk John David Nielson voiced his concerns with the hiring of Cooper. Nielson added in his comment that he was speaking as a citizen and not as a representative of his office.

Nielson said the judge in the 2015 case used an independent consultant to draw the current school board and commission districts. Nielson suggested the county use a consultant for redistricting that had not been an expert for the Navajo Nation in the lawsuit.

“I just hope the commission could go through the process creating transparency to hire somebody who would look at the data and draw maps without any sort of bias, or perceived bias,” said Nielson.

Nielson also supported the written legal opinion provided by County Attorney Kendall Laws. In the opinion, Laws said that the commission does indeed have the legal authority to hire an expert to assist in redistricting efforts. 

However, Laws also shared a concern that the hiring of an expert for redistricting follow the county procurement/purchasing policy. The county policy requires the county to solicit a minimum of two bids or advertise and conduct a Request for Qualifications process.

County Administrator Mack McDonald explained the county does have exceptions to the policy for sole source contracts. McDonald gave an example of sole sourcing a contractor who had previously built a structure in the county to come in to do a modification because of their extensive knowledge and understanding.

With a cost of $5,000 for 40-hours of work and Cooper’s previous experience working in San Juan County, Commissioner Grayeyes felt Cooper would meet that exception.

“The knowledge the individual has would be the interest also,” said Grayeyes. “That would lock-in in terms of sole source for me.”

Additional concerns of Laws regarding following proper budgetary procedures and following open and public meetings act were discussed and implemented as part of the discussion.

Laws recommended the creation of a redistricting committee with representation from communities throughout the county to assist Cooper in his efforts.

McDonald agreed that a redistricting committee would also help insulate the county from future legal challenges.

The commission voted 2-1 to direct the county to begin negotiations to hire Cooper for redistricting work. Contracted hours will begin after the 2020 Census data is released, likely in September.

Commissioners Grayeyes and Maryboy voted for, with Commissioner Bruce Adams voting against. Adams said he does not support the concept.

In other matters, County landfill manager Randy Rarick explained that his department received complaints for several months of illegal dumping on backroads and in ditches ranging from La Sal to Hovenweep, near Hatch Post Trading, and at the old Blanding dump site.

Rarick approached the commission to make them aware of the issue and seek their approval to educate the public on the issue.

The commission voted 3-0 to support the efforts to educate the public with additional directive to give out the maximum allowable penalties for illegal dumping.

Dumping on back roads or in ditches was the main issue discussed at the meeting. However, dumping in someone else’s dumpster or waste can without permission, including at city property, also qualifies as illegal dumping.

Rarick explained that the County Landfill accepts an entire pickup load of residential type trash for as little as $10, which can even be split with a neighbor. Additionally, residents can purchase a punch pass, for $10, which allows for 16 bags of waste over a month.

Sheriff Jason Torgerson says his department is willing to enforce the issue. Torgerson added they would like to get inmate crews to start cleaning up problem areas.

“We want to enforce it, get it cleaned up and put trail cameras up to catch people littering again,” said Torgerson. 

Commissioner Willie Grayeyes asked that the county prioritize using the maximum $1,000 fine over allowing restitution through community service hours.

Deputy County Attorney Alex Goble clarified the county can ask for both fines and service hours from a judge. Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy said he has seen furniture and refrigerators when he’s outdoors hunting and gathering wood in the county and also expressed his desire to see a decrease in illegal dumping.

The main county landfill is open Monday through Friday and is off Highway 191 about 17 miles south of Blanding. Additional county disposal sites are available in La Sal and Mexican Hat.

Also at the meeting the commission held two public hearings for county projects seeking funds from the Community Impact Board (CIB).

The Community Impact Board provides loans and grants to counties, cities, and towns in the State of Utah that are impacted by mineral resource development on federal lands. 

Because local communities cannot collect taxes from federal lands, a portion of the federal lease fees are returned to the CIB to distribute to the impacted communities.

The board is made up of elected representatives from across the state, including San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, who represents San Juan, Grand, Carbon and Emery counties on the board.

The county has two projects they are seeking to fund with the aid of a grant or loan from the CIB.

One is a Flood Management Study for the Spanish Valley area. The study is estimated to cost $77,400, with half of the cost covered by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), who also owns much of the land in the valley.

County staff says the study will provide critical information as infrastructure is built ahead of the growth that is anticipated to continue in the valley.

The other project the county is seeking CIB funds for is much larger, an estimated $17,984,704 addition to the Public Safety Building in Monticello. The county anticipates the likelihood of a full grant for the addition would be unlikely and hopes to receive a 30-year loan at a low interest rate.

The project would upgrade important mechanical systems, modernize court rooms that the county leases to the state, and expand capacity at the jail from 76 to 110 beds. The additional 64 beds would mean additional revenue for the jail.

County staff explained that the San Juan County jail is one of two facilities in the state of Utah that houses inmates that are in the long-term care Sex Offender Therapy program. 

McDonald explained the county receives about $53.93 per inmate per day from the state, which would equal $1,259,804.80 in revenue. In addition, if one-half of the state inmates were in the Sex Offender Therapy program, the county would receive an additional $791,670, for an overall revenue expectation of just $2 million per year. McDonald said the state has expressed an interest in filling those beds with inmates.

Additional interest exists from the Federal Court System to increase the number of federal inmates housed in the facility from five to ten. The increase would allow Four Corners area inmates currently housed in Denver to be closer to friends and family.

In public comment, the safety building expansion had the support of Sheriff Jason Torgerson, as well as Deputy County Attorney Alex Goble.

McDonald also laid out that a 30-year loan from the CIB at a rate of three percent would equal a payment of $920,000 annually, which would fall well in line with the revenue made from housing state inmates. The county hopes that the CIB will offer a lower rate and/or contribute some of the nearly $18 million funds as a grant.

The commission gave their unanimous support to both projects.

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