FLAGSTAFF – Navajos voted Dec. 15 to drastically reduce the size of the Tribal Council and give their president a line-item veto in the first ballot initiatives ever brought before tribal members on the nation’s largest Indian reservation.
Unofficial results from all 110 precincts showed Navajos overwhelming favored cutting the council from 88 members to 24. Nearly 61 percent voted for reducing the number of council members while 39 percent voted against.
Navajos supported the line-item veto 59 percent to nearly 41 percent, according to tribal elections officials.
The vote marks a major shift in the tribe’s government structure, which was forced upon Navajos some 85 years ago.
“This is history in the making,” said Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr., who launched the initiatives last year. “I feel like I helped write the Navajo Nation history at this juncture. That makes me very happy for my people. I feel we’re going to be where we should have been a long time ago.”
Elections officials said 44 percent of some 94,000 tribal members eligible to vote turned out.
Shirley hailed the election as a victory for ordinary Navajos and a sign that their voices should be respected. Navajos voted in a 2000 referendum for a smaller council, but the vote never was implemented because it required a majority vote in all 110 precincts.
Ballot initiatives require a simple majority.
Supporters had argued that cutting the council would rein in what they say is excessive spending by lawmakers and make them more accountable to the people.
Critics have said fewer lawmakers would mean less representation for communities. Some council delegates accused Shirley of carrying out a personal vendetta and unfairly targeting the legislative branch instead of seeking comprehensive government reform.
Council Delegate Kee Allen Begay, a vocal opponent of Shirley’s initiatives, said he was surprised by the vote but was anxious to move forward.
“Let’s get the policy in place, let’s get the structure in place, and I wish the best of luck to the 24,” he said. “I would hope that I live to say, ‘I told you so’ with the problems they will be having.”
Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie said he will present a reapportionment plan to his colleagues in January that would allow Navajos to vote for representatives to the smaller council in next year’s election. He encouraged the council to take the plan seriously or “it gets out of their control and ends up being in the courthouse.”
The initiatives sparked a political feud on the Navajo Nation, which extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The initiatives themselves were challenged, as well as the signature requirements, the delay in holding hearings and the rulings that resulted.
Shirley and Council Speaker Lawrence Morgan embarked on campaigns to discredit each other, and talk of the initiatives dominated the opinion pages of the tribal newspaper. Some Navajos said the politicians appeared to have forgotten the basic cultural beliefs of mutual respect, harmony and compromise as they squabbled over the initiatives.
The Navajo Nation Supreme Court ultimately ruled the election could go forward, although the justices were accused by an attorney for the tribal elections office of being biased. The court denied a request for reconsideration.
The vote came a day after a Navajo judge reinstated Shirley, whom the council placed on administrative leave in late October over so-far unsubstantiated allegations of criminal and ethical wrongdoing. The tribe’s attorney general has recommended that a special prosecutor further investigate the allegations.