San Juan County Commission Tables Motion to Sue County Attorney, Weighs Referendum on Bears Ears

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County commissioners Bruce Adams (left), Kenneth Maryboy, and Willie Grayeyes.

By Zak Podmore

Published: April 17, 2019

A resolution put forward by San Juan County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy to sue County Attorney Kendall Laws was debated at Tuesday’s commission meeting before being tabled.

The resolution lists a number of complaints against Laws, including his failure to compile an inventory of litigation that the county is currently involved in, despite being asked by the county commission to do so in January and again through a formal resolution passed in February.

“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 states. It goes on to add that the commissioners are still not aware of the civil cases in which the county is a party, despite being in office for four months.

On February 19, 2019, the commissioners voted 2-1, with Commissioner Adams voting against, to withdraw the county from its attempt to intervene on behalf of the Trump administration in the Bears Ears National Monument lawsuit. Close to a month later, on March 15, attorneys for Mountain States Legal Foundation filed a brief in federal court on behalf of San Juan County. The resolution states the brief was filed against the county commission’s explicit direction and that the attorneys said they were “directed by an unidentified ‘County official’…that they need not withdraw the County from the Cases.”

Laws said at the April 2 commission meeting that he had not withdrawn the county from the lawsuit because he was waiting to hear from the Utah State Bar about whether there were “conflicts of interest” for the commissioners.

Laws told the commissioners, “If we wait, it will protect the commission, protect the county, and protect me as the county attorney.” Grayeyes asked what the conflicts of interest were, and Laws agreed to give Grayeyes a written brief.

Laws went on to warn that if the commission voted to sue him, the county would pay for both sides of the lawsuit. According to Utah case law cited in the resolution, a county attorney, despite being an elected official, cannot act independently of the county commission’s direction. Litigation has been used in the past to reign in rouge county attorneys.

In addition, the resolution outlines a potential conflict for Laws himself. His father, Kelly Laws, sued Grayeyes in December over the commissioner’s residency status. After Grayeyes won in Seventh District Court in Monticello, Kelly Laws appealed the ruling to the Utah Supreme Court, which has decided to hear the case.

“In 2018, the County Attorney participated in and directed an unlawful investigation into the residence status of Willie Grayeyes,” Maryboy’s resolution says. “[Kendall Laws] was aware of an unlawful and unconstitutional scheme to remove Mr. Grayeyes as a candidate for the County Commission District 2 seat; and he made a baseless request to the Davis County Attorney to initiate a criminal action against Mr. Grayeyes.”

Nonetheless, it was Grayeyes who motioned to table the resolution at Tuesday’s meeting, saying that it could be revisited next month. Adams seconded the motion.

Maryboy abstained and expressed his disappointment. “I was kind of hoping that we would pass it today,” he said.

After the motion was tabled, Adams proposed holding a county-wide referendum to gauge citizen’s support for expanding Bears Ears to its original boundaries or beyond.

“Bears Ears is a really, really important issue for the citizens of San Juan County,” Adams said, adding that he would respect the outcome of the vote either way.

Grayeyes appeared to support the idea, and it may be added as a resolution to the next commission agenda.

Grayeyes and Maryboy went on to pass a resolution to once again request the county be withdrawn from representation by the Mountain States Legal Foundation in the Bears Ears lawsuit. They also passed a resolution requesting the Utah Office of the State Auditor complete a review of all of the county’s current litigation, which was initiated under previous commissioners Phil Lyman, Rebecca Benally, and Adams. Adams voted against both resolutions.

Maryboy’s motion to pass a resolution in favor of the Antiquities Act of 2019, currently in the U.S. Congress, died for lack of a second.

Adams’ resolutions to voice the county’s support for the employment opportunities offered by an Arizona coal mine and the Navajo Generating Station, which are slated for closure, passed unanimously. A letter will be sent to the Navajo Nation government stating the county’s support for keeping the mine and plant open.