Letter: Commissioner Bruce Adams’ Proposed Bears Ears Referendum Is Ahistorical and Tone-Deaf

Dear Editor,

Bruce Adams, San Juan County Commissioner, has made a jaw-dropping, tone-deaf proposal. At the Commission meeting on April 16, 2019, he insisted that the Navajo-majority San Juan County Commission not take any action related to the Bears Ears National Monument issue, as the BENM is too “controversial” in the County. Adams thinks a 2020 ballot referendum on all issues related to the BENM is required.

The proposal is laughably ironic given the history of BENM issues in the County and Adams’s prominent role in that history. 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 — an historic culmination of years’ work and first-ever agreement by several Native American Tribes supporting the designation. 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 the lawsuit filed by Tribal entities and others challenging the Trump Administration’s drastic reduction of the Bears Ears. These acts, taken with Adams’s leadership, were a slap in the face to Native Americans who were deliberately shut out of the decision-making process. Certainly, Adams was unconcerned with consulting the County’s Native American citizens through a referendum vote when he stood laughing at the side of President Trump when Mr. Trump signed an unlawful Executive Order to undo the BENM.

Now, however, because Adams and a few disgruntled and vocal white residents think a ballot referendum, an option never offered to the Native American citizens of the County, is their right. In fact, comments at the April 16th meeting suggest that some white citizens of the County should have the right to submit a host of issues to referendum elections, rather than learn to work with the Navajo majority on the Commission. This is flatly racist.

The elections have come and gone. San Juan County residents spoke at the ballot box. Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes, who campaigned on a promise to restore the Bears Ears National Monument, were elected and now have a right, as republican principles make clear, to decide issues concerning the monument for the County. Commissioner Adams should respect the election, be a leader, and stop his bullying and patronizing tactics.

James Adakai
Chairman, San Juan County Democratic Party
Monument Valley, UT

2 thoughts on “Letter: Commissioner Bruce Adams’ Proposed Bears Ears Referendum Is Ahistorical and Tone-Deaf

  1. You’d think that James Adakai, as chairman of the San Juan County Democratic Party, would be familiar with the county referendum process. Any resident of any Utah county, including Native Americans, can initiate the process to place a referendum on the ballot. No one has to be “offered” anything from anybody. (See Utah Code 20A-7-602. Local referendum process – Application procedures).

    The exercise of that legal entitlement is not, using Adakai’s jaw-dropping and tone-deaf rhetoric, “flatly racist.”

    Perhaps no Native American in San Juan County, including Adakai himself, ever tried to overturn a resolution approved by previous commissioners because most county Navajos support their actions.

    Recent elections confirm what the Democratic leader likely fears: San Juan County remains deeply anti-monument, even with a slight majority of Navajo residents. Not one pro-Bears Ears National Monument candidate came even close to winning any county-wide race in November.

    Democrat Jenny Wilson got only 31 percent of the vote countywide against Republican Mitt Romney in the race for U.S. Senate; Democrat and Navajo James Singer got only 27 percent against Republican incumbent John Curtis in the race for Congress; and Marsha Holland ran unaffiliated and got 33 percent against Republican Phil Lyman in a state House race that wasn’t even contested by Democrats. Likewise, Democrats could find no candidate to run against incumbent Republican District 1 Commissioner Bruce Adams.

    What’s more, former commissioner Rebecca Benally, an anti-monument Navajo, lost a squeaker of a primary race in June to Kenneth Maryboy despite winning her district’s two Navajo majority districts. White liberals in and around Bluff put Maryboy over the top.

    About Benally’s support among Navajos as a proxy for monument support: In the June 2018 primary, Benally won precincts 3 (Aneth, Montezuma Creek, 373-360) and 8 (part of Blanding and east, 247-205). Kenneth Maryboy easily won Precinct 10 (Bluff, Txelaki Dezza, 140-46). The racial makeup of District 3 is 79 percent Navajo. However, the racial makeup of Precinct 10, which includes Bluff and is home of one of Maryboy’s Utah Diné Bikéyah allies, Friends of Cedar Mesa, is 68 percent white, according to the 2010 Census. Staff and board of the environmental nonprofit generally reflect the precinct’s racial composition – white, mostly liberal. Had Benally split the vote in that precinct, she would’ve won the primary.

    Tally up the total number of votes that put Willie Grayeyes and Maryboy on the commission. Those two pro-monument candidates got 2,022 votes; Kelly Laws and Bruce Adams got 2,354 (2,957 if you count the write-ins against Maryboy).

    What’s most troubling, however, is Adakai’s bald-faced contempt for representative democracy – a perspective the two new commissioners seem to share.

    A back and forth at the April 16 commissioner meeting is representative of their constituent interaction: Kim Henderson, a Monticello resident, grilled Maryboy on whether any public forum had been held to discuss one of about a dozen resolutions introduced by him over the past two months. He said no. Any county resident? No. San Juan County staff consulted? No.

    When Maryboy referred to those in attendance at the meeting as “the peanut gallery,” Henderson erupted, “Oh, now, we’re a peanut gallery? I take great offense to what you just said. You just called your constituents the peanut gallery.”

    The new commissioners certainly have a right, as Akakai says, to decide issues concerning the monument; they also have an obligation to open, transparent government respectful of their constituents.


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