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Council fails to approve $3M bill for virus

WINDOW ROCK

Delegate Charlaine Tso implored the Navajo Nation Council to support a $3 million bill for the Department of Emergency Management and chapter emergency funds she sponsored during a Monday special session.

But after a seven-hour debate on the legislation (0054-20) the bill was voted down 11-11, as the bill required 16 votes.

“This is a time to put our egos aside and think of our people out there who are at risk,” said Tso to Council. “If we lose an elder to this pandemic I will be severely heartbroken because we had a chance to do something today, to vote to put money in there for them.”

President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer requested that the Council convene for a special session to take up the bill.

The bill was a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time there had been no confirmed cases on Navajo Nation, but that changed Tuesday when two middle-aged males were the first Navajos to test positive. And a third case was reported Wednesday. All cases were from Chilchinbeto and all had tested at the Kayenta Health Center.

The bill stated the supplemental funding request is made to address all aspects of providing emergency services including preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery.

The aim of the funding is to reduce the harmful health effects of the pandemic virus.

But it was where the funding was going directly that irked the delegates. Rather than going straight to the chapters, the funding would go to the Department of Emergency Management emergency fund, which was established over a decade ago.

The funds would address not only COVID-19, but also future man-made and natural disasters.

“I thought chapters would be getting funding directly,” said Delegate Eugenia Charles Newton. “We are creating more red tape. We should be working with our chapter officials.”

Delegate Amber Crotty had an issue with not only where the funds were going but also that Emergency Management did not provide a fund management plan for the use of these dollars.

The bill stated the supplemental funding would provide DEM sufficient resources to address the health crises on the Nation to bring chapters with less than $15,000 in emergency funds to the $15,000 level.

Delegate Jamie Henio’s issue with the intent of the bill was he saw Nez and Lizer using this as an attempt to build up the emergency management fund, which hadn’t seen dollars placed in it since 2010.

He suggested the executive was using the chapters as “pawns,” and he questioned a $750,000 custodial purchase on the budget.

Delegate Otto Tso said the executive branch failed to communicate with Council on this, and said emergency management would not be able to handle the demands.

“You are going to be short handed,” said Tso. “The other mechanism is to give it to the chapters. I wish there was thorough discussion with the executive branch.”

Delegate Charlaine Tso tried her best to explain that no chapter would be excluded from receiving assistance from this fund. She said through this fund account, monies would be monitored as to how chapters utilize their funds. And that once they waive chapter resolutions chapters can receive direct deposits.

“The process would be that the chapters would submit their requests of what needs to be purchased and we would be able to purchase those supplies,” said Harland Cleveland, acting director of Department of Emergency Management.

Cleveland also noted that the reason the custodial amount is at $750,000 is purchasing items such as hand sanitizers and hand sanitation sometimes is met with challenges with the accounts payable, which is why they placed “everything into that line item.”

“I take full responsibly of those line items and if we need to be corrected then we will make obvious corrections,” said Cleveland.

Since Feb. 27, the Navajo Nation COVID-19 Preparedness Team has been meeting and have kept Tuesday’s meetings open for delegates to join to get information on the effort to address this illness. Nez and Lizer also have kept the Nation up to date with weekly radio forums.

Last Friday, six delegates and the speaker were self-quarantined after returning back from Washington, D.C. Quarantined is supposed to last for 14 days, but the lawmakers cut it short and attended the meeting.

Some of the delegates who were supposed to be quarantined wore gloves but were seen taking those off throughout the session.

Comments were also made at Speaker Seth Damon’s constant coughing.

“Each and every delegate made a choice to come in,” said Otto Tso “This is our job. We have legislation we have to address.”

After the bill failed, Nez expressed his disappointment. In what has become a familiar adage when regarding delegates, he said the door has always been open for delegates to participate in meetings and to get information but the opportunity has rarely, if ever, been taken.

“The $3 million was in collaboration with the emergency operation center team,” said Nez. “The professionals are here… EOC, Department of Health, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service. There was a move to give out money to chapters so that is the reason I believe it failed.”

Nez said about $2 million in emergency funds are already made available for chapters and with last weeks decelerated state of public health emergency, chapters are able to move those funds around.

After the Council failed to pass the bill, Navajo Agricultural Products Industry gave a dividend of $1 million to the Navajo Nation to go toward addressing COVID-19. They will also provide dry goods.

Navajo Housing Authority also said they would give what resources they can.

The president’s office said it will also put in $100,000 of its own dollars.

“We have enterprises stepping up,” said Nez. “We are exploring all options. We hope down the road we can get reimbursed (by FEMA) but we have to take action.”

Lizer said the help from NAPI and finding other resources aside from Council has been promising in what had first been viewed as a bleak situation.

“Its better to be safe than sorry,” said Nez. “We are trying to protect our people from this bug. Really it’s for our elders. That is our number one priority for us.”

A second special session of the Council will be held Friday, March 20, at 10 a.m. The Council will discuss new emergency legislation that provides funding and legislative support for the Nation’s coronavirus response efforts.

“The 24th Navajo Nation Council is working on an emergency funding package to both provide funding support to the Navajo Department of Health and Navajo Nation Chapters for COVID-19 response activities,” stated Damon. “The Council’s response will be more comprehensive while being mindful of the Navajo Nation’s limited resources.”



About The Author

Arlyssa Becenti

Arlyssa Becenti reports on Navajo Nation Council and Office of the President and Vice President. Her clans are Nát'oh dine'é Táchii'nii, Bit'ahnii, Kin łichii'nii, Kiyaa'áanii. She’s originally from Fort Defiance and has a degree in English Literature from Arizona State University. Before working for the Navajo Times she was a reporter for the Gallup Independent. She can be reached at abecenti@navajotimes.com. Follow her on Twitter at @abecenti

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