A sad saga in San Juan County

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It’s hard to know what to make of the political situation in San Juan County, Utah, where the furor over Bears Ears National Monument (now reduced to two much-smaller monuments) and over the coming election has split the populace into deeply divided camps.

In August, a federal judge issued a decision that restored Willie Grayeyes, a Democrat and a member of the Navajo Nation, to the ballot in the race for county commissioner in District 2. It was a hugely significant decision, as the makeup of the commission and the future direction of the county are at stake in a way that they aren’t in a typical election.

All three county-commission seats are open this November, the result of previous decisions by another federal judge that found that the county’s voting districts were unconstitutional and needed to be redrawn. The old districts had most of the Navajo population – a slight majority in the county – crammed into a single district. Now, two districts have smaller Navajo majorities, meaning that there could, for the first time in the county’s history, be a commission with two Native Americans.

But on March 20 of this year, a Blanding Republican who then was seeking the District 2 seat, Wendy Black, emailed the county clerk/ auditor, John David Nielson, saying she wanted to formally challenge Grayeyes’s candidacy because she had heard that he did not actually live in the county.

Now, it’s perfectly legitimate to challenge a candidate’s or a voter’s residency. The issue doesn’t come up often, but it does periodically. And the question of Grayeyes’s residency has yet to be completely resolved, as he apparently spends time in Arizona as well as Utah (although he has voted in Utah for years). At any rate, the next day, Nielson emailed the sheriff to suggest that someone check out Grayeyes’s purported home.

This is where the story takes a strange turn and the county starts to look very, very bad.

According to information in the court decision, under state law, Nielson had only until the end of day on March 22 to make a decision on the challenge to Black’s candidacy, and did not do so.

On March 24, the San Juan County Democrats nominated Grayeyes for the District 2 seat. On March 28, Nielson sent Grayeyes a letter saying his right to vote and/or hold office in the county had been challenged.

On April 13, Nielson e-mailed Black a formal voter-registration challenge form, which she somewhat reluctantly filled out and turned in at his office on April 16.

But she backdated the form to March 20, the date of her original challenge, and Nielson affirmed that incorrect date. You read right – the county clerk falsely affirmed an incorrect date on the form.

“The right to vote and to seek political office are fundamental civil rights,” wrote U.S. District Judge David Nuffer in his decision, adding that Nielson’s actions had denied Grayeyes of due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Furthermore, the challenge filed by Black was insufficient because it included no evidence.

“Both forms of the challenges received— March 20th Challenge and April 16th Challenge—were insufficient,” Nuffer said. “The timeline to determine a candidacy challenge was not complied with, and Defendant Nielson improperly sought to expand that timeframe by using the voter challenge statute to make a backdoor challenge to Plaintiff Grayeyes’s candidacy. Defendant Nielson overstepped his role by taking on a prosecutorial role; an investigative role; and directing Ms. Black to complete a voter challenge. He also falsified the voter challenge once received.”

In comments posted under one of the excellent Salt Lake Tribune articles on the controversy, a person posting as Wendy Black (we can’t verify it was her), wrote that the judge’s decision was wrong.

“Yes, I filed my complaint on the 20th of March,” she wrote. “It was an outdated paper and therefore when the clerk found out it was an outdated version of the same paper he had me sign the new one with the original complaint date on it. There is not one person on here commenting that could claim they have never postdated a check or predated a paper.”

But this was far different than postdating a check. A county clerk of all people should know the importance of hewing to the letter of the law and getting facts and dates correct on all documents.

The Navajo Nation is now calling, with justification, for the Utah attorney general’s office to investigate Nielson and other county officials for their actions in regard to the coming election.

Also, according to the Tribune, the county attorney, Kendall Laws, actually tried to get the county attorney for Davis County to look over the file on Grayeyes with an eye to possibly filing criminal charges against the Navajo candidate. Davis County declined.

Here’s the kicker: The county attorney’s father, Kelly Laws, is the Republican who will face Grayeyes in the November commission election.

There has been a lot of talk about racism being the motivation behind this whole effort to keep Grayeyes off the ballot, but honestly, it’s not clear that that is the case. Yes, there’s racism in San Juan County (and everywhere), but the motivation by Black, at least, appears to have been political. She is an ardent opponent of the creation of Bears Ears National Monument, while Grayeyes is a vocal backer of the monument.

In fairness, it has to be pointed out that there is one Navajo on the county commission at present, Rebecca Benally, and local officials don’t seem to have problems with her. That’s because, although ostensibly a Democrat, she opposes the monument and generally votes with the Republicans.

She lost a narrow primary race to another Navajo, Kenneth Maryboy, who doesn’t even have a Republican opponent in the general election. Likewise, in the other remaining district, Republican incumbent Bruce Adams has no Democratic opponent. So the Grayeyes-Laws vote will decide who holds the majority on the commission – Navajo Democrats or Caucasian Republicans.

Is your head swimming? We don’t blame you. But the key takeaways are these:

  • The San Juan County clerk falsified a date on an important document and took far too active a role in supporting a challenge to Grayeyes’s candidacy. He should be investigated and possibly thrown out of office.
  • The county attorney needs to recuse himself from any issues that involve his father’s candidacy.
  • And whoever is ultimately elected to the commission needs to be able to put aside partisan considerations and try to do what’s best for the entire county, regardless of race or political affiliation.

We realize that’s asking a lot, but we hope the winners will step up and do it.

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