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The Navajo Nation has filed suit in U.S. District Court for Utah, alleging that San Juan County is attempting to keep Navajos from capturing a second seat on the county's three-member commission by failing to redraw voting districts to reflect the 2010 U.S. Census.
The suit, filed Thursday in Salt Lake City, alleges that San Juan County is in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and in violation of the 1973 Voting Rights Act by ensuring that non-Indian voters hold majorities in two of the county's three voting districts.
Commission chairman Bruce Adams denied the allegations in an interview.
"The system we have right now works well," he said, "and guarantees that there is at least one Native American on the commission."
San Juan County is divided into three districts for the purpose of electing commissioners. Those districts were created in a 1984 federal court consent decree, the outcome of an earlier legal battle by Navajos to gain representation at the county commission level.
Following that effort, Mark Maryboy became the first Navajo elected to the commission. His brother Kenneth Maryboy now holds that District 3 seat. Adams represents District 1 and Phil Lyman represents District 2.
Those districts were drawn based on 1980 Census information, according to the lawsuit. Since then, the population has grown and changed, leaving districts with uneven populations.
District 1 has a population of 5,347 people and is 29.96 percent Navajo, according to the suit. District 2 has 4,557 people and is 29.21 percent Navajo. District 3 contains 4,849 residents and is 92.8 percent Navajo.
Based on the 2010 Census, the ideal population for each of the three commission districts should be 4,915, according to the law suit.
"Because the populations in the three districts are not equal, the votes of residents are not equal in weight," the suit states. "Navajos in San Juan County have less opportunity than other citizens to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice."
But Adams doesn't agree and said the commission is in compliance with the 1984 consent decree.
Adams said the issue is being pushed by Leonard Gorman, director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, who wants the San Juan County Commission to be dominated by Navajos.
Navajos who live on land owned by the Navajo Nation in San Juan County do not pay property taxes, Adams said. It isn't fair for them to be in charge of a budget that depends on property taxes.
Further, Adams said a court fight could result in San Juan County going back to the at-large election system it had before 1984. "Then no Native Americans would be elected," he said. "And I think they deserve representation."
But Brian Barnard, a Salt Lake City-based attorney representing the Navajos, said his clients comprise more than 50 percent of San Juan County's population and should have the opportunity for better representation. The fact that some don't pay property taxes doesn't mean their votes should be diluted, he said.