Decentralization plan draws support at meetings
By Alastair Bitsóí and Cindy Yurth
CHINLE, Ariz. and NENAHNEZAD, N.M., Nov. 27, 2013
That was the sentiment last week at two of the five community meetings on the Division of Community Development's proposal to decentralize the tribal government's services to the chapters.
"We're all due for a change," said Rock Point Chapter President Janice Lee Jim. "Maybe this will work for the better."
Leonard Chee, executive director of the division, unveiled the plan at a series of meetings last week at Smith Lake, N.M., White Cone, Ariz., Tuba City, Chinle and Nenahnezad, N.M.
Chee said the only substantial opposition was at Smith Lake.
"My own feeling was that it was coming from LGSC (Local Governance Support Center) staff worried about their jobs," Chee said. "Once those people said their piece and left, we actually had a really nice discussion."
The LGSC staffers do have reason to worry. Under the DCD proposal, the current centers would be transitioned into 15 smaller centers located at accessible points within regions comprised of between six and 14 chapters.
Each center would be staffed by a senior planner and an accountant who would be at the disposal of the chapters in their region.
Five attorneys, one assigned to each agency, would also be available for consultation.
The employees would report to the DCD administration, and there may be a tier of middle management comprised of a program manager, program evaluation manager and an office specialist.
Having professional personnel in each region would streamline government in several ways, Chee said at the Chinle meeting.
For instance, the chapters could process their own payroll.
"Any given Wednesday there's (too many) tribal vehicles rolling to Window Rock" to pick up payroll checks, Chee said. "This would eliminate that."
The personnel at the service centers could also help the 22 chapters on the waiting list for certification, Chee said, and once the chapters are certified, the accountants and attorneys could help them write legislation to tax the businesses within their boundaries.
"Right now we have a lot of chapters that are certified by aren't collecting any money because they lack the tax ordinance," Chee said.
The regional planners could consult with the chapters on development and updating their land use plans, which the chapters are supposed to do every five years but few do.
"We found out this year we have a lot of buildings on flood plains," Chee said.
The service centers could also partner with local area universities for management and supervision training for chapter leaders, Chee suggested.
"Our elected leaders, they lack supervisory skills," he said, noting that grievance bodies of the Navajo Nation rule in favor of chapter employees 90 percent of the time simply because the officials have failed to follow protocol in firing or disciplining them.
Then there are some unscrupulous people who "prey on the chapters," Chee said, getting jobs at chapter after chapter and skimming money at all of them, under the noses of chapter officials who don't know what to look for and what checks and balances to put in place.
"Do we just continue like that, or do we do something different?" he asked the crowd of about 50 chapter officials and interested members of the public.
There seemed to be a consensus among the chapter officials both Thursday in Chinle and Friday Nenahnezad that things need to change.
"Until I took office (in January), I didn't understand how slow everything moves," said Hard Rock Chapter President Timothy Johnson. "Killer slow. Molasses.
"I'm in support" of the new plan," Johnson professed. "We always cry about sovereignty, we always cry about being self-sufficient. Let's see if we can do it."
Pi–on Chapter President Bessie Allen said her chapter was among those that got certified but haven't been able to take the next step: a taxation ordinance.
When they went to the tribe for help, Allen said, the response was, "You're certified. You're on your own."
"We became a stepchild all of a sudden," she said.
Having access to an attorney could really help her remote chapter, Allen said, and she liked the fact that Piñon is one of the communities being considered for a service center.
What she didn't like was the fact that the DCD would still be in charge of the workers at the service centers.
If the government's going to decentralize, she said, "I want the whole nine yards."
Another problem some chapter leaders had with the new plan is the price tag. The service centers will cost the tribal government an estimated $5.4 million annually to run as opposed to the $2 million it spends on the LGSCs. And the government has only budgeted $3 million, meaning the division will have to go to the Council and beg for the rest.
"What I was hoping for was a cost-effective approach," said Many Farms Chapter Vice President Charlotte Begaye.
At the Nenahnezaad meeting, T'iis Tsoh Sikaad Chapter President Lester Begay questioned whether all the personnel the plan calls for are needed.
"Accountant is the most important. That's what we need. We don't need senior planners," opined Begay.
The chapter president feels the decentralization mission could be accomplished by beefing up the current LGSC staff.
"Just hire someone at LGSC. They'll address some of the issues we're facing now," Begay said.
Begay said even with the restructuring, chapter officials would still be stuck with trips to Window Rock for approvals and opinions. He called the restructuring a "waste of time."
Several chapter leaders pointed out that the current president and Council have only one more year in office, and worried that the plan would be scrapped in favor of a new administration's ideas.
"One thing that worries me is beeso (money)," said Nazlini Chapter President Johnson Claw. "Will the Navajo Nation Council be able to fund this from here on out, or is this idea just going to go down?"
Other chapter officials, however, applauded the 35 new high-paying jobs the plan would create.
"Our children want to come home," said Forest Lake Chapter Vice President Fern Benally.
At the Nenahnezad meeting, chapter officials expressed a desire for bilingual staff.
Some chapter officials took issue with the service district boundaries. For instance, at the Nenahnezad meeting, Huerfano's Community Service Coordinator Larry Bonney, pointed out that the proposed service center in Nenahnezad was much closer to his chapter than his district's proposed headquarters in Pueblo Pintado.
Bonney asked if his chapter would need a resolution to change districts.
Other officials took issue with the unequal number of chapters in each service district. While some centers will serve only six chapters, they pointed out, others will have as many as 14.
Chee said the districts are merely suggested at this time and Bonney, like anyone else, is welcome to comment on them. A chapter resolution, he said, could be turned in as a public comment.
Chee said the comments from all five meetings will be recorded, and at some point a meeting for all five agencies will be held.
Eastern Agency has already adopted a resolution opposing the restructuring, but Chee said the decentralization is a mandate from the Council, and though the present plan is not in set in stone, $3 million has been set aside and some form of decentralization must occur.
Also, he said, the agency councils, while their input is valuable, are not an official rung of Navajo Nation government.
The plan is available for review on the division's web site, www.nndcd.org.Public comments can be made by phone, 505-371-8466 or 8464; by email: firstname.lastname@example.org; or snail mail to Division of Community Development, P.O. Box 1904, Window Rock, AZ 86515.