San Juan County, Utah, Commissioner Bruce Adams – now the only Republican on the three-member county commission – is urging his fellow commissioners to put Bears Ears National Monument to a vote of the people before taking any further actions in regard to the controversial designation.
“I think the Bears Ears issue is a really, really important issue to the citizens of San Juan County,” Adams said at the commission’s April 16 meeting in Monticello. “So I would suggest. . . we first ask the citizens in a vote what they would like to do with Bears Ears.”
He added that he is “uncomfortable with the three of us trying to make a decision on Bears Ears” and said he is willing to accept whatever the county’s voters decide. However, the board tabled the idea for a future discussion.
Adams’ suggestion came toward the end of a lengthy and typically tumultuous meeting for the commission, which underwent an upheaval in last year’s election. Thanks to a federal judge’s ruling that the county’s voting districts had to be redrawn and all the commission seats put up for election, Navajo Democrats were able to gain control of the commission for the first time in the county’s history.
Now, the board – which is chaired by Kenneth Maryboy, with Willie Grayeyes the other member – is wrestling with a host of difficult and controversial issues and facing pushback no matter what actions it takes. Meetings have been packed and the public-comment segments have been drawing plenty of participants.
There were seven resolutions up for a vote during the regular portion of the meeting and another four that were discussed during the workshop.
Adams’ suggestion about the county-wide referendum on Bears Ears came as the commission was considering a resolution to authorize the county to file a lawsuit against its own attorney, Kendall Laws (the county attorney is elected, not appointed).
Grayeyes and Maryboy have accused Laws of not following the board’s instructions and of having conflicts of interest.
The resolution states that Laws “has a history that raises legitimate questions concerning his actions as the County Attorney.” Laws is the son of Kelly Laws, who lost to Grayeyes in the 2018 general election.
Kendall Laws, the resolution states, “participated in and directed an unlawful investigation into the residence status of Willie Grayeyes.” A Blanding citizen had questioned whether Grayeyes actually lives in San Juan County, and Grayeyes was thrown off the ballot by the county but then ordered back on by a judge. Kelly Laws has filed an appeal of that decision with the Utah Supreme Court.
The resolution also accuses Laws of refusing to prepare an inventory of all the civil litigation in which the county is involved, as requested by the county commission earlier this year.
“The litigation inventory is essential for the governance of the County, as it is believed the County has exhausted its financial reserves in the last four to five years through expenditures of up to $5 million in legal fees to outside attorneys for civil litigation,” the resolution says.
The resolution cites Salt Lake County Commission v. Salt Lake County Attorney, a 1999 case in which the Utah Supreme Court upheld the right of a county commission to hire outside counsel at county expense if the county attorney “is unwilling or unable to perform his or her duties.”
However, the court stated in its ruling, “The County Attorney is the legal representative for the County and cannot be displaced by the Commission without the agreement of the attorney or a formal declaration by an appropriate authority that the attorney is unavailable to act in that capacity.”
It added, “First and foremost, the parties should attempt to settle the matter among themselves.”
The proposed resolution states that commission chair Maryboy has attempted to meet with Laws “to discuss his failure to comply with the lawful directive of the County” but that the attempts had been unsuccessful.
The resolution calls for a lawsuit against Laws and the retention of outside counsel.
But Adams argued that the commission needed to take more time before authorizing a lawsuit against Laws.
“I don’t know if one elected official can sue another elected official,” he said, suggesting Maryboy check with the state attorney general’s office.
“I was hoping to pass it today,” Maryboy said. “I certainly will try to reach out to those in the appropriate areas but I still do feel that our county. . . has been shortchanged” by the attorney.
He said he had previously asked for Adams’ support for a different countywide referendum regarding the Utah Navajo Trust Fund and Adams was “adamant” that it would be too costly. “How is this going to be different?” Maryboy asked.
Adams said the Bears Ears referendum could be added to the ballot for the next regular election at no additional cost. “Is it going to make any difference in the next month? Two months? Six years?” he asked.
He then made a motion to place such a question on the ballot at the next election, but was reminded that the matter they were discussing was the resolution about Laws. Grayeyes then made a motion to table that resolution, and it passed 2-0, with Maryboy abstaining.
After further discussion about the need for transparency and the fact that a Bears Ears referendum wasn’t even on the agenda, the board agreed to table that discussion until a future meeting.
A referendum, of course, could not tell courts or a president what to do, but Adams appears to hope it would influence whether the county stays involved in legal battles over the monument.
Bear Ears remains one of the most controversial issues in a county that has been rife with controversy over the years.
President Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create a 1.3-million-acre monument at the end of his term, in 2016. A year later, President Trump slashed the monument to about 200,000 acres.
While San Juan County officials then in power cheered Trump’s action, Native American tribes were furious, as a coalition of five tribes — including the Navajos, Ute Mountain Utes, and Hopis – had supported the original monument.
Republicans throughout Utah, however, say the larger monument represented a federal overreach, and there are some citizens in San Juan County who worry that it would bring a flood of tourism to a delicate area. Tourism has been extremely high in the state in recent years – indeed, at the April 16 commission meeting, one visiting member of the Grand County Council to the north of San Juan County, Evan Clapper, told the board, “We have more tourism than we can handle, quite honestly.”
But monument supporters say the designation will help bring more protection to the area, which is replete with cultural and historical artifacts and sites.
In a letter to the editor in the San Juan Record and the online Canyon Echo, James Adakai, chair of the San Juan County Democratic Party, called Adams’ proposal for a citizen referendum on Bears Ears “laughably ironic.”
“Two years ago, the former white-majority Commission, of which Adams was the chairman, never proposed ballot referendums before passing previous resolutions condemning President Obama’s proclamation establishing the BENM,” Adakai wrote.
“Further, the former white-majority San Juan County Commission wasted no time with a referendum to get San Juan County citizens’ input before deciding to intervene on behalf of defendants” in a lawsuit filed by Native American tribes and environmental groups when the Trump administration reduced Bears Ears, Adakai noted.
On Feb. 19 of this year, the new commission voted 2-1 to pull out of an effort to intervene on the side of the Trump administration in the monument lawsuit. That decision infuriated county Republicans, some of whom have complained at commission meetings that they feel the new board isn’t listening to their concerns and that it is acting on behalf of environmental groups.
On April 16, Bob Turri, a 50-year resident of the county, told Grayeyes and Maryboy, “I do not like or agree with any of the decisions you have made for this county. . . You are only a puppet for special-interest groups.” He added, “I can only guess what your rewards might be to represent their goals.”
He said the commissioners aren’t writing the resolutions themselves but with the help of outside counsel “and I don’t know if you understand what they mean or what the results might be.”
He concluded by referring to a proposal to put a temporary moratorium on commercial businesses along Highway 191 in the Spanish Valley area in the northern part of the county. “How do you plan to replace those lost monies? Do you plan to raise taxes on those of us who pay taxes?” he asked.
The latter comment was a pointed reference to a sore issue with some of the Anglos in San Juan County, who have questioned why the county should be run by members of the Navajo Nation, who don’t pay property taxes.
But Navajos now have a slight majority in the county, according to the most recent census data, and they have said for years that the county has neglected their needs. They also point out that they spend money and pay sales taxes throughout the county.