President Shelly: the highs and lows of the first 18 months

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, August 23, 2012

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(Special to the Times – Donovan Quintero)

Navajo Nation president Ben Shelly speaks on Tuesday about his accomplishments and other goals he hopes will come to fruition in Window Rock.

S omething must be done to change the Navajo tribal government, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said Tuesday, because the current three-branch style of government isn't working.

"We need to go back to the chairman form of government," he said during an interview about his first 18 months in office.

The interview, held Tuesday afternoon in his office, marked his most open discussion in office on a wide range of subjects from his feelings about whether the 24-member council was working to what he plans to do when his first term in office is over.

He also talked about some of his future plans for the next two years.

On the subject of the tribe's current form of government and the need for government reform, Shelly said when he came into office he wanted to do something that would get rid of the three-branch government and go back to the style of government the tribe ran under for most of the last century.

By getting rid of the speaker and having only one leader in charge will make for a more efficient government, one that would be able to get the government moving again.

He pointed out that the Navajo Nation has a "unique set of fundamental laws, tradition and culture" that need to be used to govern the Navajo people.

"Only then would that get us back on the right track," he said.

The chairmanship form of government was rejected by the Navajo Nation Council back in 1990 in the aftermath of a scandal involving then-Chairman Peter MacDonald who came under investigation for a variety of acts of corruption, including benefiting personally from the sale of the Big Boquillas Ranch to the tribe.

There is nothing wrong with the chairmanship type of government, Shelly said, but where the tribe went wrong was by giving the chairman more and more power until he had all of the power.

He said he was beginning to push this idea when the Government Development Office was reestablished and that agency began discussing ways to reform the tribal government. At that point, he said he decided to back off and allow the office to work with the Navajo people to come up with a form of government they wanted to see run the tribe.

People can see the problems with the current government, Shelly said, by looking at it from the perspective of officials in D.C. He said federal officials work with and gets visits from tribal officials and the president, but they all sometimes have different agendas.

The Washington officials wonder, said Shelly, who is speaking for the tribe.

"Are you speaking personally or for the tribe" is something Shelly said he hears frequently when he goes to Washington.

Shelly indicated he doesn't think that the decision by the Navajo voters to reduce the council from 88 members to 24 did much for government reform since it did little to get the government to work more effectively.

"The problem is that there was no planning when the council was reduced to 24 members," he said.

What you have now, he said, is a council made up of delegates who are "constantly meeting" because the four committees now deal with three divisions, and the delegates not only have their committee assignments, but their council meetings. They also have to attend chapter meetings and many of them are on boards.

It's a wonder, he said, why "they haven't burnt out."

Budget talks

Much of Shelly's time nowadays is spent in budget meetings and trying to deal with pressures from both within theatrical government and within the federal government to deal with projected shortfalls in 2013.

The tribal government is currently operating at a level of $173.8 million. Next year that is being reduced to $170 million, meaning a shortfall of $3.8 million. The tribe's executive branch will have to assume $2.3 million of that shortfall.

At the same time, another $4 million in cuts will be owing from the federal government which will mean the executive branch will be looking at a total shortfall of $6.2 million.

To meet that new figure, Shelly said the branch is looking at this time laying off as many as 51 employees.

He said he wasn't happy to see that happen and plans to do everything he can to minimize the effect of the layoffs on those who will be affected.

This can be done, he said, by looking at the vacancies within the tribal government and trying to match the qualifications needed to fill these positions with the qualifications of those who are losing their positions.

If this can be done, he said, there will be minimal layoffs.

Supporting veterans

He also talked about his efforts over the years, first as a member of the tribal council and then as vice president under Joe Shirley Jr., to promote programs, such as setting up a permanent trust fund for the veterans, to give them the benefits they deserve.

But while he has continued as president to push for new initiatives, such as the creation of a veteran's division, none of them have been supported by the council and as a result, his efforts have been stymied.

"I've done all that I could," he said, adding that it may be time to take another approach.

What Shelly would like to see is for the Veterans of Foreign Wars to partner with the Navajo Nation and establish a presence on the reservation and then use its influence to seek additional benefits for Navajo veterans.

High and lows

When asked what he thought has been his major accomplishment in his first 18 months in office, he immediately pointed to the relationship that he established after taking office with the Lawrence Livermore National Lab and the Sandia Lab on the tribe's energy resources.

The tribe has been relying on the two labs for research on the tribe's available energy resources and Shelly wants to use this as a centerpiece to his efforts to implement a new tribal energy policy that would not only better utilize the tribe's resources but bring in more revenue and jobs to the reservation.

When asked about his major disappointments, he said he felt he had a few minor disappointment but nothing major.

When asked about the fights over the recent water settlement in Arizona and smoking at Navajo casinos, Shelly said he didn't look at them as disappointments.

Although he supported the water settlement, he said his main efforts were to be "transparent" with the Navajo people and make sure they understood what the settlement would mean.

He was disappointed, he said, in the council's rejection of the settlement, adding that what he expected to happen is what happens whenever a major bill is considered by Congress or other governing bodies - the passage of amendments that would allow for more discussions and eventually an agreement.

When asked if he would be continuing to work toward a settlement in the future, Shelly indicated that he would have to wait and see what happens in Arizona but for right now, that fight is over.

As for the smoking ban he tried to implement at the tribal casinos, the health issue he said he is still very concerned about and he looks at his fight as a victory because it convinced officials at the Navajo Gaming Enterprise to make sure that the casino being constructed at Twin Arrows has enough ventilation that the affects of smoking there will not be a problem.

The future

At the end of the interview, he was asked about future plans and said that one of the things he wants to do is revive the Desert Rock proposal.

Tribal officials discussed for several years plans to build a coal gasification plant at Desert Rock, saying it would provide hundreds of jobs for Navajos and millions of dollars annually to the tribe through royalties and taxes.

But problems in getting permits from the federal government and lack of support within the tribal council eventually resulted in the project being abandoned.

But Shelly said he felt it can be revived if an alternative form of energy other than coal could be used, therefore cutting pollution. Once that happens, he said he felt that more support could be generated among the Navajo people and the tribal council for the idea.

As for his future, he knows already that in 2014 he will be out on the campaign trail seeking a second term as tribal president, despite the fact that there is a recall movement afoot to get him removed from office.

"I have been in politics for 36 years and every election I ran in, I won," he said, adding that he realizes that one of the aspects of being a tribal politician is that everyone won't like the decisions that you make.

So he said he should be thanking former Navajo Nation president Milton Bluehouse, one of the leaders of the recall movement, because it's preparing him for what he will be getting into when he runs for re-election.

On a more personal note, he said he still finds enjoyment in being tribal president and despite the rigors of the job, he finds time to go fishing with his grandchildren and spent time with his family.

"I like to get out of cell phone range," he said, adding that that is one of the reasons he enjoys going fishing at Wheatfields Lake.

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