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Proposal to study government change is latest drama in southern Utah county's elections feud

By Jacob Klopfenstein, KSL.com | Posted - Nov 7th, 2019 @ 3:12pm



BLANDING, San Juan County — A proposition that would start the process of changing the structure of San Juan County’s government looks to be headed for failure, but it’s still a close race.

Proposition 10, which was on the ballot in San Juan County on Election Day, asked: “Shall a Study Committee be appointed to consider and possibly recommend a change in San Juan County’s form of government?”

The proposition, if passed, would only mandate the formation of a committee to study governing the county differently.

As of late Tuesday evening, 1,735 county residents had voted against the measure, while 1,614 votes were counted in favor of it, according to the San Juan County Clerk’s Office. There were still at least 650 votes yet to be counted in the race as of Wednesday morning.

An updated vote count released Friday morning showed 2,120 votes against the proposition and 1,967 votes in favor.

The petition is the latest development in a longstanding fight over elections, voting districts, and power in the county of about 15,000.

In 2017, a federal judge ordered that three new voting districts should be drawn for county elections. The previous districts were deemed to be discriminatory to the Navajo population in the county, which makes up 51% of the county’s population, according to Buzzfeed News.

In the previous district map, two of the districts were made up of only about 30% Navajo, while a third was comprised of about 93% Navajo, Buzzfeed said. Now, District 1 is about 11% Navajo, District 2 is about 66%, and District 3 is about 80%, the news site reported.

The redistricting led to the election of two Navajo county commissioners on San Juan County's three-member board: Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy.

Since being elected, Grayeyes and Maryboy have subsequently come under fire for using an out-of-state attorney to assist with governing duties and hiring a new county administrator in possible violation of Utah open meetings laws.

Joe B. Lyman was one of five people who petitioned to get the Proposition 10 question on the ballot, according to the San Juan Record newspaper.

Joe Lyman, a cousin of former county commissioner-turned state Rep. Phil Lyman, is the mayor of Blanding, San Juan County’s largest city with a population of around 3,400.

In an editorial written in the San Juan Record in support of the proposition, Joe Lyman argued that splitting the county into five districts would help share the power and workload of the government.

He also argued a five-district county would restore representation for Blanding. Previously, the county’s most populous city was in its own district, but now it is split into several.

“I still believe the current districts are gerrymandered according to the stated objectives of those who brought the lawsuit and that Blanding has been denied representation as a community of interest,” Joe Lyman said in an email to KSL.com. “However, if the people vote to accept the current districts at least we have heard the voice of the people.”

In a Facebook post, the San Juan County Republican Party endorsed the proposition, saying that the party supports voter education and more representation for the whole county.

“We see Proposition 10 as a nonpartisan opportunity for growth in the county,” the post reads. “Proposition 10 is a proposal to study the best representation for the entire county.”

The post also says the party believes the proposition would help unite the community and find a way that would better address all the needs of the county.

Lyman denounced the notion that the previously drawn districts were gerrymandered, pointing out that a federal judge has always approved the way the districts were drawn.

In the editorial, he also said the “ethnic makeup of the commission doesn’t change anything,” and he would have backed the proposition even if the county commission election turned out differently.

San Juan County Commissioners Willie Grayeyes, left, and Kenneth Maryboy, right, are seen at an event in Salt Lake City on Sept. 20, 2018. They were elected to the commission in 2018 after a federal discrimination lawsuit mandated that the county redraw its voter district lines. A proposition that seeks to initiate a government change in the county is the latest drama in a fight over elections and voting rights in the majority-Navajo southeast Utah county. (Photo: Rick Bowmer, AP)

Sue Halliday, vice chair of the San Juan County Democrats, is skeptical about the timing, though.

“If this issue of renegotiating the government had happened before the two Navajo commissioners had been elected, I think that people would have said ‘Oh, well let’s think about that,’” Halliday told KSL.com. “But when they did it immediately after the two Navajo commissioners were elected, it was called ‘Oh, this is the way I can get my power back.’”

She said she thinks the proposition would just lead to another expensive lawsuit for the county if it ends up passing.

Halliday added that she can see Joe Lyman’s concerns about the lack of representation for Blanding. But since there are many Navajo who live in Blanding, the city is still represented, she said.

Since the new districts were drawn, the transition to leadership has been difficult for Grayeyes and Maryboy, Halliday said, and there’s no end in sight for the political chaos in the county, either. She predicted it would last for at least another couple of years.

The upside to the convoluted situation, though, is that it’s getting more people involved and engaged with local politics, Halliday added.

“One of the positive things you can say about this is that it’s certainly getting people involved in government,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you believe in as long as you are active and understand what’s happening.”

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