“It’s our stuff. We made it and we know best how to use it and care for it. And now we’re going to get it back.”John Pretty Man, Crow Indian
“The entire corner of Utah is a stronghold of rugged Mormon individualism–than which there is nothing ruggeder— and all that its stubborn inhabitants ask is to be let alone so they can take care of themselves.”David Lavender. from “One Man’s West” 1943
The drama and turmoil that continues to play out in San Juan County, Utah seems to have no end to it. It is a clash of cultures, of political maneuvering by all parties, much of which has been heavily publicized in the media and some of it extremely well concealed. All sides have hidden agendas on the one hand, and honest quests for fairness and equality on the other. It has brought out the very best in some people and the very worst in others.
The election last November was supposed to finally put some of this to rest. Many didn’t like the outcome and are still angry. Some think the election was “stolen.”
Reading this, you might think I’m referring to Donald Trump and his electoral victory. Many on the Left think Trump used trickery and collusion and deception to win in 2016. They still refuse to accept the outcome, consider him an “illegitimate” president, and are doing everything in their power to reverse the events of January 20, 2017 when Trump was inaugurated.
In San Juan County, the same Conservatives who support Trump and who believe assaults on his presidency are unjust are essentially pursuing the same strategy against the newly elected County Commission. They will do whatever it takes to reverse the election and remove Willie Grayeyes. I can see no difference between the tactics employed by Democrats to remove a Republican president and Republicans who want to remove a Democrat commissioner. Both groups, certain that an election has been corrupted, are inspired by their honest convictions. They are doing what they believe is right and in the public interest.
But, despite their good faith efforts, they aren’t helping matters. Their convictions are keeping them from dealing with reality, as it stands. And encouraging greater division. Everyone knows his side is right. No one thinks they’re in the wrong. Everything is black and white. And I see no end in sight, anywhere.
For those of you not familiar with the latest episode of “As San Juan County Turns,” Here is a brief summary:
In March 2016, Navajo Willie Grayeyes filed as a candidate for San Juan County Commission. The recently redrawn district boundaries, by federal order, gave Native Americans a distinct demographic advantage in future elections and presented the possibility of a county commission controlled by Navajos. But within hours of the deadline, a candidate complaint was filed by another resident, Wendy Black, claiming that Grayeyes was not a Utah resident. Grayeyes was subsequently taken off the ballot.
In August, a federal judge threw out the complaint, saying the process by which the complaint was filed was flawed and possibly illegal. Grayeyes was reinstated. Questions about Grayeyes’ residency were deferred.
In November, Grayeyes was elected and in January he was sworn in. On the same day, he was served legal notice that a lawsuit had been filed by his opponent, Kelly Laws. Laws claimed that Grayeyes was not a Utah resident and that the election should be declared null and void. Testimony was presented at a hearing on January 22 in the Seventh District Court of Utah.
On January 29, Judge Brian Torgerson issued a finding in favor of Grayeyes…so here we are
* * *
Having been recently attacked by Liberals for being a “parrot” and “throwing red meat” to the Alt-Right and attacked by Conservatives for “giving ammunition” and “comfort” to Liberals, I’m probably in a no-win situation here. All I can say is that I offer these views as candidly and transparently as I know how, without regard to any ideology that either side may think I pander to. When it comes to those kinds of hysterical and unkind accusations, all I can do is quote my favorite cowboy, Monte Walsh, who once famously said, “You have no idea how little I care.”
But I do care about trying to be honest. That’s all I’m trying to do here.
So, with regard to the lawsuit brought by defeated candidate Kelly Laws against Willie Grayeyes, the certified winner of the election, I perused the articles, thumbed through the testimony, and read Judge Torgersons’s decision. I am not a legal scholar nor inclined in that direction. I can only go with what my gut tells me. And my heart. This is purely a layman’s perspective. I came away with mixed feelings and a conflicted conclusion.
On the one hand…
The attorney for Kelly Laws, Peter Stirba, introduced evidence that showed Grayeyes did not have a Utah drivers license—his license is from Arizona. Stirba produced documents to show that Grayeyes owned a residence in Page, Arizona and paid taxes on that property. He introduced witnesses who swore that the Utah structure Grayeyes first claimed as his residence was abandoned and un-livable.
Stirba called Delton Pugh as a witness. Pugh is the Aging and Adult Services Case Manager for San Juan County and testified that, in his years working in the area of Paiute Mesa, he had never seen Grayeyes and that the house Grayeyes now claimed as his residence was in fact occupied by a man named Harrison Ross.
Stirba called San Juan County Deputy Colby Turk as a witness. Turk had interviewed witnesses in March 2018, regarding Grayeyes, after Wendy Black filed her complaint. But Judge Torgerson ruled that the body cam video of those witnesses was inadmissible because Turk did not have the authority to conduct a civil investigation on sovereign Navajo lands without permission. The footage of Grayeyes himself was allowed.
Another witness, Brad Bunker, is a land surveyor who noted that the GPS coordinates provided by Grayeyes matched “within 200 feet” the structure first identified as his residence.
So…the attorney for Laws showed that Grayeyes did not possess a Utah drivers license, though state law requires its citizens to have one. He showed that Grayeyes owned property in Page, Arizona and that few of the people interviewed had ever seen Grayeyes at either of the structures he claimed was his residence.
Then Steven Boos, the attorney for Grayeyes, produced several witnesses in support of his claims as a Utah resident. Lena Fowler is the 5th district representative for Coconino County. She was the first to discuss the Navajo belief that the burial location of an infant’s umbilical cord designates forever that person’s residency. Consequently, Fowler insisted that Grayeyes is a permanent resident of Utah.
Another witness for the defense, Navajo medicine man Johnson Dennison, also believed that the burial location of an umbilical cord designates that person’s permanent home.
Former President of the Navajo Nation, Peterson Zah, supported the views of Fowler and Dennison. Zah said he had visited Grayeyes at his home on Paiute Mesa after giving a speech to students at Navajo Mountain School five years ago.
* * *
When I started to research residency requirements in San Juan County, I was surprised to learn that to become a registered voter, one only needed to prove residency at a specific address 30 days prior to election day and that even a utility bill would provide enough proof. But I wrongly assumed that the standard was the same for candidates. Later I located the filing application for elected office; in it, the candidate agrees that he/she has been “at least one year a resident of the county immediately before the date of the election.”
Laws’ argument was that Grayeyes failed to meet the requirement.
Further, cultural considerations like the burial of an umbilical cord as a means of establishing a candidate’s residency seemed like a violation of the separation of Church and State, especially in an election where its constituents share a diverse collection of religious and cultural beliefs.
For example, imagine that the Republican candidate Kelly Laws had won the election, instead of Democrat Willie Grayeyes. And imagine that, subsequently, some of the Democrats find convincing physical evidence that Laws actually lives in Colorado.
Laws hypothetically replies that since he was baptized in the LDS Temple in Monticello, and because his ancestors were part of the original Hole in the Rock expedition almost 140 years ago, he feels like San Juan County is his true place of residence.
Would Democrats support that explanation or reject it?
As for the lack of a Utah drivers license, Grayeyes’ argument was that the great distances required to travel to the nearest Utah licensing office were excessive and even prohibitive. It was more convenient to obtain an Arizona license and many other residents of Paiute Mesa have acted similarly. For the average citizen, that sounds fair enough.
But it’s a reasonable expectation that a candidate running for public office should have a self-imposed higher standard to meet. If Grayeyes is willing to make multiple visits to San Juan County’s seat of government in Monticello, to serve as the county’s elected representative, couldn’t he have made the trip just once to secure a drivers license in the state where he claims to live? It represents a sacrifice of a day, every five years.
On the other hand…
It’s important to remember that the burden of proof in a lawsuit like this lies with the accuser, in this case Kelly Laws.
Much of the debate about drivers licenses has focused on the notion that a candidate is required to have a Utah drivers license, but that’s not accurate. The law, “requires a resident to have a valid Utah driver license, when driving in Utah. A person is considered a Utah resident if the person establishes a domicile here, remains here longer than six months, engages in other than seasonal employment; or obtains Utah privileges not ordinarily afforded nonresidents…”
But does not having a license disqualify that person as a resident? Or does it mean that the resident is in violation of the law for failing to obtain a license? The difference in interpretation is important.
More importantly and what I think proved to be critical for the judge was, if Willie Grayeyes doesn’t live on Paiute Mesa, then where does he live? The burden of proof again falls on the accuser. It seems clear from the testimony that Grayeyes does not reside in a trailer in Page, Arizona; the fact that he owns property and pays taxes there is irrelevant in this case. Many people own property in states where they don’t reside.
Could anyone prove beyond a doubt that Grayeyes does not spend a lot of his time sleeping at his sister’s shade hut or daughter’s cabin? It was assumed by many but proven by no one.
This is what Judge Torgerson had to say in his ruling…
Where the person usually sleeps: The Court considers this factor to be significant. The evidence produced at trial was not credibly refuted by Petitioner. According to the testimony, Grayeyes spends approximately 60%-80% of his time on Navajo Mountain. He often stays with his sister, Rose, and at his daughter April’s cabin. He also spends time with a girlfriend in Tuba City, AZ and he spends a lot of his time traveling. It is apparent that Grayeyes spends more time at Navajo Mountain than he does anywhere else.
No one could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the testimony Judge Torgerson accepted as fact was untrue.
* * *
And finally, what is known and certain and provable is that Willie Grayeyes has voted regularly in Utah elections since 1984. For thirty-four years and eighteen general elections, Grayeyes has been deemed eligible to vote. Not once, until March 2018, did anyone ever challenge that right.
This isn’t even Grayeyes’ first run for public office. In 2012, Grayeyes was the Democratic commissioner candidate in San Juan County. He ultimately lost, and at no time did anyone challenge his candidacy. But that was probably because it was almost impossible for him to win. In 2012 only 30% of the residents of his district were Navajo. Bruce Adams, the incumbent, won handily.
Grayeyes’ Utah residency was only called into question when it became apparent he was almost sure to win the 2018 election. The federally mandated redistricting a year earlier almost guaranteed it. After the districts were redrawn, the percentage of Navajos in Grayeyes’ district jumped to 65.6%.
Again, from the Court:
Laws never challenged Grayeyes’s voter eligibility nor his voter registration according to the required statutory process. Instead, he waited until after the election to challenge Grayeyes’s “eligibility to serve in the office to which [he] was elected” under Utah Code 20A-4-402 (1) (g). It is undisputed that Grayeyes was a registered voter of San Juan County for at least one year before the election, and that he is currently a registered voter of San Juan County. At the time of the election, he met all of the statutory requirements of the office. And he currently meets the statutory requirements of the office.
Where a party wants to challenge the election process, they are required to act at the earliest possible opportunity to avoid disrupting the election process by interfering with the rights of absentee and other voters, candidates, political parties, and others who participate in the election process and spend money and effort toward conducting the election.
In this case, Laws had actual knowledge about the issue of Grayeyes’s residency as early as March 2018, when neighborhood caucuses were conducted. He was also aware of the litigation in Federal Court surrounding Grayeyes’s residency, and knew that Judge Nuffer had issued a preliminary injunction on August 9, 2018 to compel San Juan County to put Grayeyes back on the ballot.
It was in March, of course, that Wendy Black filed a last minute challenge to Grayeyes’ residency. It was done in haste and the county clerk was clearly unfamiliar with the proper protocol. The subsequent investigation by a Sheriff’s deputy and a few interviews with other residents of Paiute Mesa led to the county’s decision to remove Grayeyes from the ballot. An appeal to the federal court was inevitable, as was its decision to reinstate Grayeyes.
Grayeyes eventually defeated his opponent, Kelly Laws, 973 to 814. Now, months after the election, the lawsuit by Kelly Laws seeks to invalidate the entire election campaign and the decision made by voters in November.
Judge Torgerson offered these observations….
But despite knowing about the issue of Grayeyes’s residency for at least 7 months before the election, Laws delayed bringing his challenge until after the election was concluded. And, notably, his challenge wasn’t actually filed until the last business day of the 40-day period when he could have brought the challenge. Instead of acting at his earliest possible opportunity, Laws acted at his very last possible opportunity…
And his delay is prejudicial to important public interest concerns and the integrity of the election process. In supporting Grayeyes, the San Juan County Democratic Party spent at least $20,000 and hundreds of hours of volunteer time. The Democratic Party was also unable to substitute and support a replacement candidate before the election. Ballots were printed. And some 1,787 votes were cast in the election that would be nullified if the election was not confirmed.
Laws could have challenged Grayeyes’s declaration of candidacy and qualification to vote, thereby resolving the issue before public interest concerns became a problem.
* * *
So, as I write this, Willie Grayeyes is still the District #2 commissioner from San Juan County, Utah and the relationship between those who oppose him and those who support him has never been so divisive and ugly.
The word now in San Juan County via social media posts, but not officially, is that Laws plans to appeal Judge Torgerson’s decision to the Utah Appellate Court. The rancor continues. Like rest of the country, the microcosm that is San Juan County continues to devolve into two separate divided entities, full of loathing and distrust for the other, each absolutely confident in the purity of their own cause, each one hoping their own self-righteousness will prevail.
So whatever hell we’re living through in America and in San Juan County continues. Where is that light at the end of the tunnel?
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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*Note: The Cartoonist screwed up. In a subconscious attempt to escape the world’s news, he changed one of our Backbone Member’s names from “Michael” to “Richard” Cohen. Sorry, Michael. We know you’re a way better guy than that infamous Michael Cohen and we beg your forgiveness.