San Juan County Commission drops appeals in lengthy voting rights case

From the left are San Juan County Commissioners Kenneth Maryboy, Willie Grayeyes and Bruce Adams at a joint meeting with the Grand County Council in June. File photo by Doug McMurdo

The San Juan County Commission on July 29 unanimously voted to drop any further appeals in the voting rights case that led to the election of two members of the Navajo Nation to the three-person commission last November, according to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune.

For Chair Kenneth Maryboy and Commissioner Willie Grayeyes, both Democrats and Navajos, stopping the appeals makes sense, especially after a recent decision from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s determination that the county violated the federal Voting Rights Act for decades by drawing commission districts along racial lines, effectively diluting the votes of Navajos.

Now, the only matter left to settle is how much San Juan County will have to pay in attorneys fees – hundreds of thousands of dollars, or will it be in the millions?

The previous county commission paid more than $1 million to a Salt Lake City law firm to represent it in two voting rights cases between 2015 and 2018, according to the Tribune, with the redistricting case the more costly. Incidentally, William Cooper is a nationally recognized expert in drafting district maps. He was hired by the Navajo Nation to draw their new election districts and on Friday the Grand County Change of Form of Government Study Committee agreed to hire him, as well, to cut Grand County into two districts. Three other council members will run at-large on the five-person council. See story page A1.

According to the newspaper, San Juan County could be made to pay an additional $3.2 million to the firm. Longtime San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, a Republican, agreed with his colleagues across the aisle to drop the appeal based at least in part on the law firm indicating it would negotiate a final payment.

The Tribune noted one of the assertions reached by San Juan County Republicans – that the new district maps disenfranchised the citizens of Blanding – remains a contentious issue. Blanding City Council Member Cheryl Bowers told the Tribune she was upset with the vote, saying her city – the largest in San Juan County with about 3,700 residents – paid $15,000 to file an amicus brief, which means “friend of the court,” in the 10th Circuit appeal protesting the new districts maps. In the end, the appellate court rejected the argument that the new districts disenfranchised Blanding, according to the Tribune.

Former Moab city manager and current interim San Juan County Administrator David Everett told the Tribune that “creative thinking” would have to be employed if the fees from the Navajo Nation’s attorneys exceed several hundred thousand dollars. Such measures could include raising property taxes, borrowing from other county funds in reserve, which would require a vote of the people, or finance a payment through debt servicing.

Funds from the county’s rainy day account have been depleted from more than $9 million to $2.5 million in the past three years, due to various lawsuits and lobbying efforts from the previous commission, which was, historically, dominated by Republicans. The prior commission, for instance, spent roughly $500,000 lobbying to have Bears Ears National Monument reduced in size.

Everitt told the Tribune that using money in the general fund to pay for legal fees is off the table.

The Tribune also noted the Navajo Nation made several offers to settle out of court between 2014 and 2016, which the commission ignored before it appealed to the 10th Circuit – and piling on more litigation costs.

Grayeyes hinted the issue boils down to essentially rolling the dice, telling the Tribune: “It’s just like going to Las Vegas. You gamble and [if] you lose, you lose. Here it’s the same way.”