Speaker lists goals for 2013

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, December 27, 2012

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Speaker Johnny Naize

A s 2012 nears an end, Navajo Nation Council Speaker Johnny Naize is still waiting to see what the tribal offices looking into government reform have to say.

"I still haven't seen any update on government reform," Naize said in the year-end interview last week in his legislative office.

In October, the Navajo Nation Council passed the Title 2 Reform Act of 2012, which was part of the efforts of the Naa'biki'iyáti' Committee's Government Reform Subcommittee and the Navajo Government Reform Commission to begin comprehensive government reform to the tribe.

The tribal government has been discussing government reform since 1990. It was during Joe Shirley Jr.'s second term as tribal president that he was able to push forward a tribal referendum on the subject that reduced the Council from 88 members to 24.

Now, encouraged by rulings from the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, which mandated that the tribal government continue seeking a form of government approved by Navajos, efforts are being made to see exactly what type of government that will be.

Naize said he has decided not to get involved personally in that effort, allowing the subcommittee and the commission the freedom to explore the various options on its own.

"I want to remain neutral," he said. "I don't think it is a good idea for me to be involved."

That process continued in 2012 with the commission and the Office of Navajo Government Development hosting a series of listening sessions to receive input from Navajos on what types of reforms they would like to take place in the structure of the tribal government.

One of the big questions that need an answer, Naize said, is whether the people want to refer back to the chairmanship type of government or continue with the three-branch form that was put in place in 1990.

But Naize made it clear that he wants to see something in place in 2013 that can be taken to the people to get their input through a referendum to see what type of government they would like to see put in place.

On the issue of reducing the Council, Naize said he thinks it has generally worked out well and that the Council delegates are getting more and more used to the new system.

When he was interviewed for the year-end edition last year, he said some delegates were having a hard time adjusting to the extra workload and the fact that instead of one or two chapters, they would now be representing as many as eight.

"Now that I look at it, 88 was a lot of Council delegates," Naize said.

Observers of the tribal government said that with 88 members, it was possible for some members to "coast," showing up just to vote with the majority and not take part in either the discussion or makeup of the legislation that was brought before the Council.

With a reduction to 24 members, delegates are spending more time in committee meetings and required to be more knowledgeable about the legislation that is being addressed in Council.

Since being reduced to 24, it's not uncommon for almost all of the delegates to get a chance to speak on every issue and, on important issues, every delegate gets a chance to address the Council and make his or her viewpoints known.

That's one of the good things that happened with the reduction, Naize said.

But one of the more difficult areas for almost all of the delegates has been meeting the demands of their chapters, doing what is necessary to make sure that their needs from the various tribal programs are addressed.

Representing seven or eight chapters requires a lot of time and Naize has been telling delegates that they have to rely more on their chapter officials to take on some of the responsibility of going to the departments and making sure that the paperwork is flowing properly.

"The chapter officials have to work with their delegates to make this happen," Naize said.

Under this new system, Naize said, it's becoming more and more of a situation where the chapter president has to become a sort of project manager, making sure that the project has everything it needs to go forward with the delegate just checking in to make sure that the chapter officials are doing what they are supposed to be doing.

Talking about the biggest issue that came before the Council in 2012, the proposed water settlement for the Little Colorado River, Naize said the Council had no choice but to reject the proposed settlement because it failed to address a number of issues that were important to Navajos and it included issues like the Navajo Generating Station and the Peabody coal lease that should not have been in there.

Although it put the Council and the president's office on different sides, Naize said he still thinks the Council made the right decision, a decision that was supported by a majority of Navajos.

Speaking of the president's office, Naize said he didn't think that there was an issue as to who speaks for the tribe when it comes to issues important to officials in Washington, D.C.

"The president speaks for the Navajo people," he said. "He is my president."

At that point, Naize crossed his two fingers to show that as speaker, he and the president work together for the betterment of Navajos.

And while there have been a couple of disagreements between the two this past year, the animosity that existed under some of the past administrations – and particularly the Hale and Shirley administrations – was not present.

Both Shelly and Naize said they have made efforts to work together on many issues and have succeeded.

Naize said one of the things that he and Shelly talked about this year was the need to raise the salary of the tribal president and vice president, which have been set at $55,000 and $45,000 respectively since 1989.

Under the reform laws that were passed in 1990, any increases to the salaries of elected officials have to be approved by a majority of the chapters. No request for an increase has ever gone to the chapters, mainly because of a belief that chapter members would reject such a request.

The salary of delegates has also been set since then at $25,000 (and $55,000 for the speaker) but the Council has been able to increase the monies delegates receive by giving them a fee for every chapter and committee meeting they attend, which more than doubled the amount of money that they earned every years as a delegate.

The president and vice president, however, don't receive extra money for attending meetings.

In 1962, then chairman Paul Jones earned $20,000 a year, giving him one of the highest salaries in the tribe. Today, it's not unusual to see division directors, program directors and even members of the president and vice president's staff making more than the two top elected officials of the tribe.

Naize said he agreed that change should take place and he was thinking that the president of the tribe should be making $120,000 and the vice president between $80,000 and $90,000.

When it was brought up that the president and speaker make the same salary, Naize said that if he was still speaker - his term ends in January and he said he plans to run for the position again - he would put in a provision that the increase for the speaker would not take place until a new speaker is chosen in 2015.

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