More government reform may be on the horizon for the Navajo Nation.
December 15 marks the three-year anniversary of the passing of a referendum that cut the 88-delegate legislative branch to 24 delegates. That vote went before the people, who approved reducing the Council by more than two-thirds. The Navajo Supreme Court in May 2010 upheld the vote.
The 24 members of the 22nd Navajo Nation Council were sworn in during a massive but chilly inauguration ceremony in January 2011 at the fairgrounds in Window Rock, Arizona. President Ben Shelly, who also took office that day, is calling the reformed Council historic.
“The 88 delegates were a problem because there was too much leadership and they were not on the same page,” Shelly said.
Shelly, who served as vice president with former President Joe Shirley Jr., was a leading force behind the referendum, promising the reduction would streamline government business and save money.
Now Shelly says the cuts didn’t bring the desired results.
“We’re not on the same page,” he said. “It’s still like the 88. They’re making decisions based on the judgment of a few people instead of the Navajo people as a whole.”
Shelly took office during a time when a special prosecutor was investigating the legislative and executive branches.
Sweeping investigations into the two government branches resulted in Shirley’s temporary suspension from office in October 2009 because of his involvement with two failed business endeavors. That suspension came less than two months before the referendum vote went before the people. It also set the tone for massive government reform.
One year later, in October 2010, 77 delegates were indicted on criminal charges that they misused the tribe’s discretionary funds for personal reasons. The criminal charges against most delegates were dropped and replaced with civil charges.
The number of people indicted increased to 142 in July 2011. The list expanded to include the Nation’s controller, current and former attorneys general, 87 past or present delegates and 50 unidentified individuals.
Shelly and running mate Rex Lee Jim, both former delegates, were included in the original indictment, which came just weeks before they were elected. The day before the two took office in January 2011, Shelly and Jim issued a statement agreeing to repay the money they were accused of misusing in exchange for having the criminal charges dismissed. They did not admit guilt.
Together, they owed the Nation $12,050.
The political environment at the time of the 2010 election reinforced the peoples’ decision a year earlier to approve the referendum, said voter Frank Smith, of Toadlena, New Mexico. Reducing the Council was the first of many steps to continue reforming a government established in 1923.
“The initial plan to reduce the Council had to do with funding,” Smith said. “The delegates were spending money, but we weren’t seeing it at the chapter level.”
Transparency hasn’t improved as much as the people hoped, however, Smith said.
“The delegates are still spending the money,” he said.
Shelly believes more reform is needed at the tribal level. A larger legislative branch may be necessary, he said, as well as other measures that put decisions in the hands of the people.
“The Council is the governing body of 320,000 Navajo people, and I think those people are starting to see that we need another change,” he said. “Maybe what we need is to give the government back to the people.”
The Navajo Nation is divided into 110 chapters spread across the 27,000-square-mile reservation covering three states – Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Each chapter elects local officials, including a president, vice president, secretary and members of the farm and grazing boards, but elected officials don’t have the power to enact ordinances or resolutions.
Each registered voter has a say in local government. Local measures are approved during bi-monthly chapter meetings, with 25 citizens making a quorum.
Shelly advocates a similar government process for the Nation as a whole, starting with another adjustment to the number of Council delegates.
“It would have to be a referendum from the people,” he said. “Forty-four delegates might be good. All I’m saying is the people and I might want to see a higher number so they can be stronger.”
The next presidential and legislative elections are in November 2014. That allows two more years for the 24-member Council to continue skimming expenses and streamlining processes.
The promises may not come to fruition, said LoRenzo Bates, a three-term delegate and chairman of the Council’s Budget and Finance Committee.
The first problem, Bates said, is that the 24 delegates have the same workload as the 88 delegates did, and they are physically getting tired.
Delegates have meetings in Window Rock almost every day. That means a lot of driving – as many as six hours on the road every day.
“The 24 of us spend a lot of time on the road, away from home,” Bates said. “I’m on the road by 5 a.m. most days – at the latest, it’s 7 a.m. – and I get home when it’s dark.”
Delegates are elected to represent segments of the population. In previous years, the largest chapters, including Shiprock, New Mexico, and Tuba City, Arizona, supported three or four delegates each while smaller chapters often were combined under a single delegate.
The reduction means delegates are more spread out, with some representing as many as six or seven chapters and the largest chapters electing only one delegate.
Bates previously represented Upper Fruitland, the home of the Nation’s newest casino. Since the 22nd Council took office in 2010, Bates’ jurisdiction increased to six chapters in the northwest corner of New Mexico.
“The responsibility is still the same, but it’s spread over five other chapters,” Bates said. “A lot of what I do is done over phone or e-mail. Unfortunately, it’s a result of reducing.”
Representing multiple chapters means less one-on-one time with constituents, Bates said. It also means missed meetings and the occasional conundrum when it comes to voting if the chapters have differing views.
For the people, who traditionally conduct business face-to-face, the Council reduction has proved detrimental, said Smith, who works with senior citizens in Sanostee, New Mexico.
Sanostee voters used to elect their own delegate, Smith said. Under the reform, the chapter now shares a delegate with six other chapters.
“With seven chapters, you can’t make all the meetings,” Smith said. “It’s really rare to see our delegate. When we had our own delegate, he used to come around, have lunch with our senior citizens. Now our people don’t recognize our delegate when he does come.”
The extra workload and diminished contact with the people might be worth the effort if the legislative branch was saving money, Bates said. That is not the case.
“There isn’t the savings we thought there would be,” Bates said. “I say that knowing that the budget for the 24 is the same as for the 88.”
The smaller council shuffled dollars around. It cut monetary incentives for sponsoring legislation and stipends for attending meetings, but funds were used to hire an assistant for every delegate to help cut down workload.
Bates is one of 18 incumbents on the Council. Six delegates were new to their positions two years ago. Among them are Russell Begaye, of Shiprock, and Joshua Lavar Butler, of Tuba City.
Butler, 35, is the youngest delegate. He said fewer Council voices are better.
“You can have as many legislators as you want, but that doesn’t mean the voices are strong,” he said. “With the smaller Council, we have sifted out many people who weren’t helping. Now we have sharper, more articulate people.”
Begaye, a businessman who worked in Georgia before returning to the Navajo Nation and running for office, never set foot in Council Chambers until after he was elected. He never saw the 88-delegate Council operate, he said.
Begaye believes the reduced Council is superior, and that with time the kinks can be worked out.
“What I attribute the hardships to is that we haven’t transitioned from 88 to 24,” he said.
One transition that still needs to happen is for chapter officials to take responsibility on the local level, freeing delegates to do business in Window Rock, Begaye said.
“My role is in Window Rock, the national level,” he said. “That impacts the local communities, so I’m spending maybe 95 percent of my time addressing the national issues, but it filters down into the Shiprock chapter and all the other chapters.”
Begaye said changes are happening and the reduced Council is moving legislation faster.
“It’s tough sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes it’s difficult and people oppose you all the way through. When you’re trying to clean up something, it’s not fun, it’s not easy, because, just like anything else, when you’re trying to improve conditions and you’re trying to make things run better and smoother and trying to adjust the way things are done, you get a lot of opposition.”
Should the Nation decide to increase the size of the Council, the vote would have to come in the form of another referendum from the people, Shelly said. No one is ruling out that option.
For Charly Edsitty, a recent college graduate from Teec Nos Pos, Arizona, it is the process that counts.
“Despite there not being any change in the budget or anything, I think if anything, (the reduction) was a way for the Navajo people to take control of their government and have a voice,” said Edsitty, who voted in favor of reduction.
“We chose this,” she said. “Even if it doesn’t work, we know we have the voice to keep changing it until it works.”