Could San Juan County Become San Juan Counties?

An amendment that’s being called the “Phil Bill” seeks to make it easier for counties to split apart without majority approval

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Commissioner Willie Grayeyes (left) and his attorneys in court on January 22. Photo: Utah Court Pool.

Published: February 7, 2019

A proposed amendment to two dozen words in the Utah code that dictates how counties are formed could have profound consequences in San Juan County.

Currently, residents in a Utah county can vote to split into two counties if the split is approved by the majority of voters in both the portion of the county that wishes to secede and the portion that would be left behind.

HB 93, the amendment that was introduced in the Utah house this week by Rep. Kim Coleman (West Jordan, R), would strike the second half of that requirement from the law, making it so voters in a portion of a county could vote to break away — even if they represent a minority — without approval of the county as a whole.

The amendment has been dubbed the “Phil Bill” by opponents after Utah Rep. Phil Lyman of Blanding voiced his support for the legislation in the pages of the Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday.

“I’m not necessarily a proponent of doing it, but I’m certainly a proponent of having that option on the table and not making one group feel like they’re at the mercy of someone else or held hostage,” Lyman told the Tribune earlier this week.

Lyman was a Republican county commissioner in San Juan County until 2018 when Voting Rights Act violations led to a court-ordered redistricting and left Lyman with a majority of Native American voters in his district. Those voters went on to elect Willie Grayeyes, a Democrat and member of the Navajo Nation, in November. Grayeyes has since faced a series of challenges to his candidacy (the latest of which is being appealed to the Utah Supreme Court).

The county’s first Diné (Navajo) Commissioner, Mark Maryboy, was elected after a Department of Justice suit in the 1980s, but Anglos had controlled the San Juan County commission for over a century until the the Voting Rights Act redistricting shifted the maps in 2018.

Before Grayeyes and his fellow Democratic Navajo commissioner, Kenneth Maryboy, were seated in early 2019, members of the Anglo community said they’d been “disenfranchised” by the redistricting.

Disenfranchisement is something Diné, Ute, Pueblo and other Native citizens in San Juan County know well, Mark Maryboy, who is now a Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB) Board Member, said in a statement. “We have suffered and struggled against their racial discriminations ever since the county government was established, but we never asked the legislature to split the county,” he said.

Those open to splitting San Juan say it would remove the jurisdictional challenges associated with having a portion of the county overlap with the Navajo Nation.

Blanding’s mayor, Joe Lyman, told the Tribune, “If splitting the county would alleviate some of the political difficulties of overlapping a sovereign nation, it should be discussed as an option.”

The upshot of splitting the county along the lines of the Navajo Nation would ensure a solid white majority in the north, prompting some critics to call HB 93 a “segregation bill.”

Other critics, including the Utah Association of Counties, say the bill could create more problems in the state than it fixes.

UDB noted that many county services are located near San Juan County’s largest towns, Blanding and Monticello, and the county has long funded off-reservation community projects partly with Utah Navajo oil revenues.

“HB 93 seeks to disenfranchise Native Americans, prevent us from governing, and stop us from pursuing our right of self-determination,” said Honor Keeler, UDB’s assistant director.

The bill could go to vote as soon as Friday, Feb. 8.