Water commission hires PR firm

By Diane Schmidt
Special to the Times

ALBUQUERQUE, June 14, 2012

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F ull-page color advertisements arguing the case for the Little Colorado River settlement have appeared in the Navajo Times and local papers for the past five or six weeks.

A letter from Attorney General Harrison Tsosie was placed in the Navajo Times and other papers.

If it seems like a concerted public relations campaign has been launched, you would not be mistaken. The Navajo Water Rights Commission has hired the Phoenix public relations firm of Scutari and Cieslak to help make its case.

The Phoenix firm, which lists itself as crisis communications professionals, was brought on board in April, a week after the first water forum erupted with protests.

The president's office and the Department of Justice were aware of the hire. Members of the Council's Resources and Development Committee did not know it.

Committee chair Katherine Benally was asked what she thought about the PR firm on Tuesday at a meeting in To'hajilee. She said this was the first she heard about it.

"I consider that a huge problem," she said. "Something akin to spitting in your own peoples' faces."

After consultation with Vice Chair Roscoe Smith and Leonard Tsosie and other committee members, she immediately ordered an emergency meeting for Wednesday in Window Rock and to require the water commission to appear before the committee and answer questions.

Benally said, "While the water rights commission might have the authority to decide how they spend the funds allocated to them from the Navajo Nation Council, which by the way is $2 million a year, I don't believe the Council and the people intend for them to misuse those funds.

"I hardly think (that includes) hiring a public relations firm to educate, advocate and eventually convince Congress to support or vote for Senate Bill 2109," she said. "Especially in light of huge opposition by the people to an ill-advised settlement bill. I consider this blatant action (to hire a PR firm) akin to spitting in our peoples' faces. This is wrong.


"Perhaps it's time the Navajo Nation Council reevaluate how it serves up funds to programs, departments and commissions on a silver platter, that (then) use the people's money against them," she said. "The Council, which includes myself, needs to draw the line."

Committee member Leonard Tsosie, who also had not known of the public relations hiring, said that the ads the commission paid to publish contain negative words without substantiation.

One recent ad included the language, "don't be misled by opponents."

While he chided the water commission for letting the situation get out of hand to begin with at the first water forums, he said, "You don't win the people over by attacking them."

Tsosie had conveyed his concerns about the settlement to senators Kyl and McCain in Tuba City, and said he does not understand the hesitancy to make amendments.

He said he asked why water for the Navajo Generating Station is in the bill, and wording that says the Navajo Nation cannot add trust lands without an act of Congress.

"That doesn't belong in a water bill at all," he said.

While at a meeting in Albuquerque on Monday, Deputy Attorney General Dana Bobroff said, "Water is a very emotional issue on Navajo. It touches everybody's life. But, the people have elected representatives," to decide the issue.

She said that it needs to be understood that the Navajo Nation does not have water rights, it has claims to water rights.

She did not have a problem with the water commission using funds to hire a PR firm to help educate and inform the people about a bill that she said was "as good as it's going to get."

Former chairman and president Peterson Zah said in passing at that meeting, "speaking as a grandfather" that he had questions about the water settlement.

Erny Zah, public information officer for President Ben Shelly, said the office is aware that the commission had hired a public relations firm.

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