Officials debate lowering chapter quorums to 3
On Jan. 7, Navajo Nation Council voted to pass legislation that would authorize chapters to conduct official business through a quorum of three registered residents.
President Jonathan Nez approved the resolution on Wednesday. He said the Omicron variant is highly-contagious and can be transmitted between people within a short amount of time. He said the Nation has worked closely with health experts to implement safety measures and reduce the spread of COVID-19 and this resolution supports the overall effort.
“We encourage virtual meetings and limited person-to-person contact as this surge continues,” Nez said. “The safest place to be is at home.”
The bill (CMA-09-20) was passed on March 23, 2020, and authorized the temporary reduced chapter quorum because of COVID-19. This was initially supposed to be effective for only 60 days.
However, Council passed another bill (CAP-19-20) on April 13, 2020. This allowed chapter meetings to be held virtually and would require a three-person quorum. This was extended on Aug. 9, 2020.
The extension was outlined to stay in place until the public gathering limitation was lifted or changed to allow a minimum chapter quorum of 25 or as determined by Council.
The Council then considered returning to the 25-person minimum quorum for chapters, however, that was soon changed with the discovery of a variant of COVID-19, Omicron, which is more contagious than the original virus.
Due to this, Council decided it is best for chapters to conduct official business with a quorum of three registered chapter members and virtual meetings or a hybrid, both virtual and in person, can be used.
Official business addressed by the quorum of three consists of chapter business directly related to COVID-19 matters, the Navajo Nation emergency declaration, and budget authorizations and approvals.
Any additional topics outside of these guidelines will be approved, on a case-by-case basis, by the director of the Division of Community Development, along with the Navajo Department of Justice.
‘Safety’ of the people
“This legislation is for the safety of our Navajo people down at the chapter level,” Delegate and sponsor of the bill Herman Daniels Jr. said.
Pearl Yellowman, executive director of the Division of Community Development, said chapters during the global pandemic have taken major impacts to local governance and they support the resolution with recommendations.
She also said the core areas she would like to address with this legislation is transparency between the chapters and their constituents and communicating in ways such as providing call-in information and minutes. Safety is another one of the core areas she discussed.
“The safety of chapter staff, chapter officials, and really relying heavily on our public health experts to weigh in on this especially on the timeline or the length of any extension that may be recommended,” she said.
She also said she would like to address the misconceptions that chapters tend to hold about legislations like this.
Sonlatsa Jim-Martin, department manager of the Administrative Service Center, said one of the challenges they ran into with the three-person quorum is some chapter members not being able to access virtual meetings.
“We are doing what we can to provide technical assistance to the chapters so that they’re able to operate their teleconferences to include chapter members,” Jim-Martin said.
She also said there is some difficulties with identifying who is a chapter member who is eligible to vote.
“We do have some chapters that are running virtual meetings effectively, identifying their chapter voter membership and making sure they are being counted in the quorum votes,” she said.
During the meeting concerns were voiced by delegates, including questions on whether the reduced quorum would include certified chapters.
“(The Navajo Nation Code), it requires a minimum quorum of 25 registered chapter members in order for a chapter to pass a chapter resolution,” Rodgerick Begay, assistant attorney general, said. “That’s the law, whether you’re government certified or not government certified.”
‘Taking power away’
Delegate Eugenia Charles-Newton had a concern about the legislation “taking power away from the people.”
“Council is creating this system where we’re saying it’s OK for three chapter officials to make decisions on behalf of the people and there’s not really a process in place,” Charles-Newton said.
“If that decision being made is something that people don’t agree with, we’re just going to go back to ‘Well, the law is three can make the decision,’” she said.
She referenced elders and said there are some who cannot login to Zoom or cellphone numbers with different numbers.
“Speaking with my elders in my community, they’re ready to go back to the chapter meetings,” she said. “And they made a point, if you go to the Shiprock Flea Market on Saturday’s, there hundreds of people there.
“If we can open the flea market,” she said, “why can’t we open up the only form of government that allows our grassroot people to go in?”
She also said the legislation is not giving the Navajo people ‘enough credit.’
“A lot of our elders are vaccinated and they’re technically the ones who are at the chapter meetings anyway,” Charles-Newton said.
“I’m afraid of the interpretation,” she said. “I feel like we’re giving all the power to the three elected chapter officials and that’s something that doesn’t sit well with me.”
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