Complaint before Utah court alleges Grayeyes is not a county resident
The first majority-Navajo commission in the history of San Juan County is facing a legal challenge before it’s even seated.
On Wednesday evening, Kelly Laws — the Republican county commission candidate who lost to Democrat Willie Grayeyes in the November election by a nine-point margin — held a meeting in Monticello to announce his attorneys had filed a complaint in late 2018 in the Seventh District Court of Utah. The petition alleges that Grayeyes is not a resident of Utah and is therefore ineligible to serve as county commissioner.
As first reported in the San Juan Record, the petition makes a detailed case against Grayeyes residency, with references to tax records, Department of Motor Vehicles filings, and reports from the San Juan County Sheriff Department. The document argues that Grayeyes, who owns property in Arizona, is a resident of that state and not Utah. (The complaint can be viewed here.)
Grayeyes’ candidacy was first brought under scrutiny in April when Republican commission candidate Wendy Black — who later lost to Laws in the primary — challenged Grayeyes’ candidacy with the San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson. After conducting an investigation that involved the county sheriff, Nielson removed Grayeyes from the ballot.
That decision was reversed in August 2018 by U.S. District Judge David Nuffer. In a ruling, Nuffer found that Nielson and Black acted illegally to backdate a document in order to make the challenge to Grayeyes’ candidacy valid. Nuffer did not rule on whether Grayeyes was in fact a resident of Utah.
In an April affidavit, Grayeyes swore that he is a resident of Piute Mesa, Utah, in San Juan County, just north of the Arizona line, a remote area where many residents receive their mail in an Arizona post office box. Grayeyes has voted in Utah elections and held elected office in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation since the 1980s.
Laws’ complaint states, “Grayeyes established his Arizona residency in 1981 when he purchased a home in Page, Arizona…. Mr. Grayeyes still owns the home and pays property taxes on it.”
According to Utah code, an individual is a resident of Utah if: “the person has a present intention to maintain the person’s principal place of residence in Utah permanently or indefinitely.”
A person’s principal place of residence is defined as the “single location where a person’s habitation is fixed and to which, whenever the person is absent, the person has the intention of returning.”
The burden of proof to show Grayeyes had no intention of maintaining residence in Utah over the year leading up to the election is on the challengers, Laws said.
He added that Peter Stirba, the Salt Lake City-based attorney who made the filing, told him the case would be an “uphill climb.”
Stirba previously represented Commissioner Phil Lyman in the Recapture Canyon protest case and San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldridge after a deputy accused Eldridge of firing an unloaded weapon at him.
Laws said he paid Stirba’s $5,000 retainer out of his retirement savings, and donations from the residents of Blanding and Monticello helped pay for the subsequent $25,000 in attorney’s fees. Laws said he is seeking more donations. “I really think we are looking at a $100,000 before this is done and it’s got to come from the citizenry because it’s our battle.”
“He’s not cheap,” Laws said of Striba’s services. “He’s a $450 an hour attorney. He has been generous enough — because he feels like the cause is just, what we’re up against — he’s going to halve that.”
Laws’ petition includes a “prayer for relief” that requests (in the case of a favorable ruling against Grayeyes), “An order declaring that the office of San Juan County Commissioner, District 2 is vacant.”
Laws suggested at the meeting that he might be appointed as county commissioner if Grayeyes is removed from office. Under Utah code, county commission vacancies are filled by special elections in most cases, not appointments. But Laws said it would be in the judge’s hands to appoint somebody or allow the vacancy to remain open. (The Canyon Echo was unable confirm that statement.)
If the complaint is successful and a special election is held, it would not necessarily guarantee a victory for Laws, who lost with 46 percent of the vote in November. And since Utah residency can be obtained within one year, it’s possible Grayeyes could meet residency requirements to run in future county elections, even if the 2018 results are declared invalid.
The petition comes on the heels of a district court decision in 2017 that found San Juan County was in violation of the Voting Rights Act for discriminating against its Native American population. Native Americans hold a slight majority according to the most recent census data, but before redistricting, non-native candidates always controlled the majority on the commission and school board.
Bruce Adams, who will serve on the 2019 county commission with Grayeyes, called the redistricting a “fiasco” at the town hall meeting Wednesday.
Laws said, “Thank goodness this a Seventh District judge instead of some federal judge.”
“This isn’t about race,” Laws added. “This is about justice.”
When Laws was asked by an audience member whether someone a may be “pulling the strings” behind Grayeyes, Laws responded, “Anything I would say would be total speculation, [but] I do not think he’s doing it himself. Personally, I think he’s being used.”
Laws also questioned the incoming Navajo commissioners’ ability to understand basic governmental functions.
“What happens when you have two commissioners who have never paid taxes?” Laws asked, presumably referring to Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy. “They don’t understand how taxing works. It’s free money. What happens to your property tax when the county is out of money? It goes up.”
In May, Commissioners Adams and Phil Lyman both said they were concerned the county could become bankrupt, due in large part to legal battles. The county has spent close to $3 million to outside legal counsel over the last three years, and in that time the county’s general fund has dropped from $9 million to around $1 million. (The latter number could increase when tax revenue totals from 2018 are factored in.)
Laws noted that the county will not be funding his legal battle, and that if he can’t raise enough money from donations to keep the case in court, the challenge will end. “If we do not fight, the day will come when we say we wish we had,” he said.
Laws’ attorneys are not seeking an injunction, and Grayeyes is expected to be seated as commissioner next week.