Last week, San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams traveled to Salt Lake City to make a request of the legislature: $1.5 million in appropriations to help pay for the $3 million in legal bills the county has incurred over the last three years.
The response from the state lawmakers in the room was one of skepticism: Why should the state pay the county’s bills?
Adams argued that several of the legal battles were of statewide importance. The county spent millions fighting the designation of Bears Ears National Monument and to gain access to RS 2477 claims, causes which have been taken up at the state level as well.
Two of the cases involve offering legal defense services to elected officials. When San Juan Sheriff Rick Eldredge was accused of dry-firing a weapon at one of his deputies, the county stepped up to defend him and the case was later dropped. Likewise, Adams suggested, when the county clerk, John David Nielson, misinterpreted the law on residency and removed now-Commissioner Willie Grayeyes from the ballot in 2018, the county paid to defend Nielson against what the commissioners saw as a poorly written state law.
The county’s most costly battle — the voting rights case that led a federal court to conclude that the county had engaged in racial gerrymandering by packing Native American voters into a single county commission district — was also part of Adams’ appropriations request. Adams did not explicitly state how fighting the gerrymandering case in court aligns with state values.
If your politics overlap with those of the last county commission, which was made up of Adams, now-Representative Phil Lyman, and Rebecca Benally, you may believe that all roads that ever existed in the state should be reopened; you may agree that the federal government should stay out of the management of federal lands because locals know those lands the best and use them the most; and you may think that a federal judge has no business helping ensure Native American voters elect Native American representatives, even if Native Americans account for the majority of the county population.
You may even agree with Lyman, who said in an interview with the Four Corners Free Press last year, that most of these legal entanglements are “Bears Ears-related,” including the voting rights cases. “[It] has nothing to do with race or voting or anything else. It’s completely environmentally driven by the same folks that have been filing lawsuits for the last 25 years in San Juan County,” Lyman said.
And if you share those beliefs, you may support the county’s decision to spend so much time in court because, as Lyman also said, “You do the right thing and deal with the consequences as they come. If the alternative is to cow down [sic] to Robert Shelby [the federal judge who oversaw redistricting], I’ll spend every resource at my disposal to fight what is a tremendous injustice.”
That’s one side. You may, on the other hand, support the designation of Bears Ears National Monument. Many Utahns celebrated the redistricting and subsequent election of two pro-Bears Ears commissioners who also make up the county’s first majority-Navajo commission. You may think spending $3 to $6 million on legal battles and draining the county’s reserve fund in a short period of time was, as Rep. Brian King said at the appropriations request meeting last week, the result of a slew of “bad decisions.” You may also agree with King that this was something county officials may have “brought upon themselves” and therefore the county doesn’t deserve a state bailout.
The previous county commission could have settled the redistricting lawsuit years ago for a reasonable sum, but it refused to and the case still in federal appeals court. Nonetheless, the school board and county commission districts were redrawn to more equitably distribute Native American voters, and voters in two of the three districts elected Native American representatives. Rebecca Benally, who opposed Bears Ears National Monument, lost in the 2018 primary to fellow Democrat and fellow Navajo candidate Kenneth Maryboy, who printed the Bears Ears Buttes on his campaign flyers. Grayeyes withstood two legal challenges to his eligibility to run and won in November by a nine-point margin.
The new commissioners have moved quickly to begin pulling the county out of an anti-Bears Ears lawsuit and are considering a resolution to review all of the county’s current legal entanglements. If you agree with Judge Shelby’s ruling and believe Native American voters have long been suppressed in the county, then how is it fair to saddle the incoming commission with the debt accumulated by the previous commission’s refusal to settle with the Navajo Nation over redistricting? If the county goes bankrupt due to the last commission’s decisions, then the new commissioners, who are already facing backlash among certain segments of the county, will likely be blamed.
We believe Utah taxpayers outside of San Juan County should try to be open-minded about Adams’ proposal. Adams recently told the Canyon Echo, “Many, many groups and officials make appropriations requests of the legislature every year. This certainly isn’t anything new.” Adams is right on that point, even if $1.5 million is not an insignificant request to make of the state legislature. Whether you side with the last San Juan County commission or the current one, San Juan County residents need the state’s help right now.