Voter referendums considered

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

FARMINGTON, September 6, 2012

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(Times photo – Paul Natonabah)

TOP: Carmelia Blackwater, community services coordinator at Dennehotso Chapter, shows a list of recommendations for government reform during the Navajo Nation People's Convention in Farmington, N.M.

SECOND FROM TOP: Convention facilitator Asa Begay explains a proposed resolution during the Navajo Nation People's Convention on Aug. 30 in Farmington, N.M.

W hen it came to asking representatives at the Navajo Nation People's Convention to support four proposed voter referendums to amend part of the Navajo Nation Code, the endorsement fell flat.

The proposed referendums would ask Navajo voters to:

  • Reduce the fee to conduct an initiative election for a chapter from $500 to $200 and reduce the fee for an initiative election for the tribe from $2,500 to $1,000;
  • Lower the initiative signature requirement from 15 percent to five percent of registered Navajo voters;
  • Amend language in Title 2 of the Navajo Nation Code to make the Navajo people the governing body of the government rather than the Council;
  • Eliminate the ability for three-fourths of the Council to amend or repeal an initiative approved by Navajo voters.

Navajo Nation Council delegate Jonathan Nez (Navajo Mountain/Oljato/Shonto/Ts'ah bii Kin) is sponsoring the bills, which are waiting consideration by the Naa'bik'iyati' Committee.

As part of the Aug. 29-30 convention at the Farmington Civic Center, each of the 110 chapters were asked to appoint two chapter members as representatives to the convention to discuss government reform issues such as statutory amendments, referendum questions and other reform projects and activities.

The Commission on Navajo Government Development and the Office of Navajo Government Development presented a supporting resolution asking the Navajo Nation Council to convene a special session by Sept. 7 to consider and approve the referendum questions.

The special session is necessary in order to meet the deadline to place the referendum questions on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

Bessie Tsosie, chair of the Government Development Commission, explained that approving the resolution would show the Council that the membership of the People's Convention supports placing the referendums on the ballot.

But what resulted was a set of fiery comments by some representatives, who were surprised by the proposal.

Immediately after the resolution was presented, one representative called into question the validity of voting on the resolution since the vote would take place on non-tribal land.

Tony Watchman, a representative from Rock Springs Chapter, backed that statement.

"Number 1, we're off the reservation. We are off the reservation," Watchman said.

In an interview later, Watchman questioned the committee's intentions.

"For them to do something like that, it's out of place," he said.

Tó Nanees Dizí Chapter representative Don Yellowman did not hesitate in telling the audience that the resolution should not be considered because the people did not generate it.

"I'm going to have difficulty sleeping tonight if we move forward on this," Yellowman said.

Percy Anderson, a representative from Manuelito Chapter, said the commission was untactful when they presented the resolution and he would not vote on it because he wanted to input from his chapter members.

"We have to get the people's opinion at the local level," Anderson said.

Among the dissent was a supporting voice from Rose Ann Charley, a representative from Low Mountain Chapter, who was ready to vote.

She said that when Navajo leaders travel to Washington D.C. or other locations off the reservation, no one questions the validity of any actions they may do because they were elected by the people to conduct such activities.

"That's really sad to see, how we conducted ourselves in there," Charley said.

Government Development Chair Tsosie announced that the resolution was going to be retracted because the commission already passed a separate resolution supporting the referendums.

"Throughout all of the sessions that we went to, we heard a lot about you wanting the decision making to go back to your respective chapters so we thought that you would like this resolution," Tsosie said.

Throughout the two-day conference, representatives met in agency caucuses to discuss issues and problems with the local and central governments along with possible solutions.

One issue highlighted by the Eastern Agency representatives was the number of delegates serving on the Council.

The concern is that some Eastern Agency chapters are not seeing their delegate because they represent more than three chapters.

Delegates from the Eastern Agency are Charles Damon II and Edmund Yazzie both represents six chapters, Danny Simpson and Leonard Tsosie both represents eight chapters, and George Apachito represents the three satellite chapters.

When the special election to reduce the Council from 88 to 24 members happened in December 2009, the Western Agency had 12 out of 18 chapters vote against the membership decrease while 24 of 31 chapters in the Eastern Agency voted in favor.

When Navajo Times interviewed Western Agency voters that day, they cited concerns about increased workload for delegates as a reason to reject the reduction.

But voters in Eastern agency were ready for change.

So far it is the Eastern Agency that feels the pain from the reduction with some chapter members complaining that they never see the delegates and one way to alleviate the situation is to increase the Council membership, according to a recommendation by the Eastern Agency caucus.

Other issues raised by the caucuses include:

  • Crackdown on wasteful spending;
  • Removing the Office of the Auditor General and the Ethics and Rules Office from the Legislative Branch and establish both as independent entities;
  • Shifting the power from the central government to the chapters;
  • Revising authoritative power from the Council to the chapters;
  • Utilizing natural resources, including using it as a negotiation tool;
  • Exploring or establishing youth councils to allow young people to participate in chapter governments;
  • Cross training tribal personnel to provide better service to the people and amending hiring policies;
  • Decentralizing and regionalizing tribal services.

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