Voters must make decisions in five county races as well as two school districts
Voters in San Juan County, Utah, have some hotly contested races to decide in the Nov. 4 general election, including a fourway race for county commissioner, as well as two-way races for county clerk, attorney, assessor, and recorder.
Two seats on the county commission are open. District 2 Commissioner Phil Lyman is running uncontested, while voters in the all-Native District 3 will be asked to choose from four hopefuls.
In the county, citizens vote only for the commissioner in their own district rather than for all three at-large. That is the result of a 1984 court decision following a lawsuit over Navajo representation.
Early in the year, current District 3 Commissioner Ken Maryboy, now at the end of his four-year term, announced his candidacy for Navajo Nation president. Concurrently, he campaigned for the Democratic nomination to retain his county-commission seat in the primary election.
But Maryboy lost the nomination to Rebecca Benally in the June 25 Democratic primary. Roger Atcitty came in second, only 70 votes behind Benally. San Juan County Clerk Norman Johnson reported that voter participation was more than 52 percent in the June 25 District 3 Democratic primary.
Following that defeat, Maryboy continued campaigning in the Navajo Nation presidential primary race against 16 other candidates. But on Aug. 25, he finished fifth, with 3,153 Navajo votes.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Manuel Morgan won the nomination for the District 3 commission seat he held from 2002 to 2006. Morgan’s win back then was the first break in the control held over District 3 by then-Commissioner Mark Maryboy, Ken’s brother, who had won four consecutive terms beginning in 1986. In 2006 Morgan lost his bid for re-election when Mark Maryboy challenged and won the seat back. In 2010 Ken Maryboy ran in place of his brother and won the office he holds today.
Ultimately, Ken Maryboy’s defeat in the Navajo presidential primary and the Democratic primary in San Juan County kept the Maryboy name off all general-election ballots where Native voters have a right to vote – the Navajo Nation and San Juan County. Ken Maryboy is now running as a write-in candidate for county commissioner, as is Roger Atcitty.
At a Sept. 16 candidates’ debate presented by the San Juan County Chamber of Commerce and the Utah Farm Bureau, Morgan faced the audience and the debate questions alone on stage. None of the other three candidates for the District 3 Commission seat attended.
“I didn’t know anything about it in time for the event,” Benally replied in a question about her absence during a telephone interview the next day.
Morgan, who had driven four hours from Window Rock, Ariz., to attend, explained part of his platform. “I have served one term as commissioner before, and know the challenges. I want to create the bridge that’s needed between the Navajo and the people of this community.”
Economic development is one area he believes should be of mutual interest to both. “I am puzzled and perplexed by why we want to continue to drive all the way to Cortez or Farmington,” Morgan said. “Yes, all of us love Chinese food, but why don’t we develop restaurants that serve it right here? If the county doesn’t want to do it, then I want the Navajo Nation to do it.
“The same with tourism. Money flows through here on its way somewhere else. The commissioners represent everyone. My intent is to create the bridge. No more excuses. We just have to do it.”
When asked how he would unify the citizens of the county, he said, “You have to be cognizant that you do have neighbors. The lines need to be lifted. We must work together because we still have the same needs, raising our kids and working toward common goals. The rez kids go away to college and come back and what does it look like to them? No jobs. How does anyone sustain family life here?”
Asked whether the commission should continue to fight federal-lands agencies over road issues, Morgan said, “There are some we should fight for and others that could be closed, but we must do it legally. Some of those roads get us out there where people live. But some have sacred places.
“I don’t know if the EPA can stop access to everybody or keep them from doing things on that land. Whether President Obama signs that Utah wilderness bill or not, there is a whole different story that exists on the desks in Washington, D.C., than what exists in our back yards, that we have use for here where the Navajo people have lived between the four sacred mountains.”
San Juan County Clerk Norman Johnson, who has served the office continuously since June 1999, is retiring. Candidates John David Nielson (R) and Dawn Shaw (D) briefly addressed the audience and then answered questions.
Long travel distances in the county create logistical problems for many citizens. Both candidates said they see a need to streamline access to county business and services.
Nielson’s approach would be to “move some things outside the office on a monthly and weekly schedule to shorten the driving distances.” Shaw agreed, adding that she would include a clerk’s office assessment of polling-place elections vs. mail-in ballot.
“Central hubs would help voters get information, possibly locate some voter/ election services at the chapter houses,” she explained. “I would ask the voters how they liked the mail-in process. Would the voters rather have a polling place, and where should they be located?”
U.S. passport applications, commission notices and agendas, minutes of meetings, marriage licenses, U.S. passport information, beer licenses, financial statements and budgets, tax abatements, sales and buyer information are all handled in the clerk’s office. Long trips from remote reservation locations to attend to business in Blanding or Monticello often cause people to miss work.
“The clerk’s office needs to do a better job communicating and serving the people on the reservation,” added Nielson. “I would make an effort to be more involved in their lives, let them know they are a part of this county.”
In Utah, county attorneys are elected. The process differs from Colorado, where the constitution states that the county attorney may be elected or appointed. All counties appoint their attorneys, including Montezuma, but elect the prosecuting district attorneys.
Incumbent San Juan County Attorney Craig Halls (R), first elected in 1986, faces a challenge from Kendall Laws, a 2013 lawschool graduate, who won the Democratic primary over deputy county attorney Walter Bird.
Clearly running on his experience and on the fact that the county has voted him back into office every election, Halls credits his “working relationship with commissioners, sheriff and chief of police, the officers and the people” for the “working, practical knowledge I have gained over so many years.”
“I am no ‘star of the show’,” Halls said. “I have no scandals, apply my best judgment. I just do a quiet efficient job for the county. It’s difficult, too, because one side will say you didn’t do enough and the other says you did too much.”
Laws offers a new perspective on the legal services. “The office is more than a prosecutor,” he said. “I am committed to bringing a wider array of services to the county, a more robust attorney’s office.”
An audience member asked for an explanation of the role the attorney takes in county issues, such as the possible endangered- species listing for the Gunnison sage grouse and federal road closures.
“I review legislative action [that is intended] to resolve issues they’re trying to pass,” answered Halls.
“I advise commissioners, represent them and policy-makers. I am trying to make sure justice is done. The attorney does not legislate. Instead, we advise.”
Laws replied, “There is a distinction between the federal and state laws. The attorney works with commissioners to determine the legality in court. We are not mavericks. If we are challenged in court we cannot do whatever we want. We have an obligation to protect the county commissioners.”
If Laws wins he will set aside his private practice, he said. “I will be free to do county work and get rid of potential conflicts of interest.”
Halls described the number of conflictof- interest cases during his 28 years as attorney as under 20. “We have a deputy county attorney who handles those expressed conflicts when they arise,” he said.
San Juan County, Utah, is still litigating a redistricting suit filed by the Navajo Nation in January 2012 alleging that the county’s voting-district boundaries “systematically disenfranchise Indians by denying them the right to vote” because they are so drawn that only one Navajo can ever be elected. (District 3, described in the filings as a “packed district,” is entirely Navajo.) The decision, not expected until early 2016, will weigh the district boundaries against assurances that each person is guaranteed one vote.
2010 census numbers showed that Indians held a slim majority in the county – 52.17 percent among the total population and 50.33 percent in the voting-age population. When asked about the re-districting lawsuit, Halls said the commissioners “acted appropriately [when they set new district boundaries]. I think they did it right and I am prepared to defend it. Going forward, I think we’re going to win that.”
But Laws warned against the unpredictability of the judges in the case. “I can’t predict the outcome. You just do the best you can, prepare, and then it is in the hands of the judge.”
While county offices are typically fouryear terms, the assessor, recorder, surveyor and treasurer will be elected to six-year terms this year in order to stagger the county offices so not so many positions are open at once.
County Treasurer Glenis Pearson (R) and surveyor Sam Cantrell (R) are running unopposed. Incumbent county assessor Howard Randall (D) is being challenged by Shelby Seely (R), who was not present at the debate. Randall explained that he has been in the job 12 years after being the manager of the Napa Auto Parts store.
“The state allowed me three years to get educated as an appraiser. In that process I have learned the other side of the business,” he said. “We appraise and collect taxes so that we can enjoy the privileges the county provides. I have continued my education, completed the tests.”
Appraising, he said, is a balance “between what you would ask for a property, what it would bring at the sale and the fair market value.” Assessments of property with infrastructure such as power, communications, pipelines that cross state boundaries are out of his expertise. Specialized teams are brought in from Salt Lake City, he explained. “They can answer our questions and give us facts that we would not normally have access to, but they are the people who do the final assessments of those properties.”
The county recorder keeps the real property records and provides the assessor and treasurer with information necessary for assessment and taxation. Its information handling methodology is changing rapidly. How to use systems efficiently that can help collect, maintain and retrieve data accurately is now the most important issue facing the recorder, according to candidate David Carpenter (R).
His background in technical digital systems gives him the experience to deal with an emerging “technical society,” he explained, “the GIS [application], for instance, and how it works.”
The Geographic Information System currently in use in many recorder offices contains maps used to locate, identify and inventory parcels of land. Layers of geographical information about a place give a better understanding with selected input from the user’s purpose — finding the best location for a new store, analyzing environmental damage, viewing similar crimes in a city to detect a pattern.
The technology is very useful in assessment of real and personal property.
“I do not have the technical background my opponent does,” candidate Tina Corrao (D) admitted at the debate, “but I look forward to the GIS. It is a work in progress, about a year out. It does everything. I’d love to see the easements in the roads,” while looking at other information on a parcel of land.
Carpenter adds that it is a broad technology that that can be used for specific information pertinent to a search in the recorder and assessor’s services. He sees the possibility of working with the Navajo Nation in those applications as an opportunity to build a practical relationship that will benefit the Navajo communities in the southern parts of the county. “Without it we are limited in what we can do.”
Candidates running for two San Juan County school districts were also absent at the debate. Montezuma Creek, Aneth, and Red Mesa are included in District 4, where incumbent Elsie Dee is facing a challenge by write-in candidate Melvin Capitan, Jr. Farther west, District 5 serves Navajo Mountain, Oljeto, and Monument Valley, and Jean Holiday Nimrod is challenging incumbent board member Nelson Yellowman.