Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly (Augusta Liddic The Daily Times)

FARMINGTON — In his state of the nation address to the Navajo Nation Council Monday, President Ben Shelly highlighted some of his administration's accomplishments over the past quarter, including advances in energy policy, government reforms and protection of Navajo workers.

"Though times can be difficult with the drought, overall, we are on a course that is leading towards a more profound sense of self-determination as a sovereign government," Shelly said, according to a transcript of the speech. "As we move forward, we must be patient and yet persistent in our efforts, because we are building a nation."

Shelly cited stipends totalling $850,000 for farm, grazing and land board officials, near completion on the streamlining of emergency management reimbursement payments and nitrogen oxide-reducing technology upgrades to the Four Corners Power Plant as evidence of his administration's leadership.

Russell Begaye, council delegate for Shiprock, was guardedly optimistic about much of the president's report.

"What I take away from his address is political rhetoric," Begaye said. "A lot of 'moving forward' without stronger action when we need it now."

One frustration Begaye has is over Shelly's refusal to support emergency legislation to address fallout from drought conditions that have created misery and hardship for people and livestock.

"Feral horses are dropping dead from thirst, sometimes three or four of them slumped together beside a dried-up watering hole," Begaye said. "Shelly vetoed legislation to provide $4 million in emergency funding that would have sent needed relief to livestock owners who rely on the health of their animals."

Shelly's rejection of funding for the emergency drought relief came at the expense of providing stipends for officials, who are paid twice monthly already, Begaye said.

"(Shelly) approved the stipends but vetoed drought relief and support for youth employment over the summer," Begaye said. "I can't see it in any other way than he made a political decision. The priority should be the drought; relief is critical."

The impact of multi-year drought conditions have also forced some of the poorest people on the Navajo Nation to have to travel farther distances to buy water, a hardship exacerbated by fuel prices, he said.

"We will continue to work with chapters to update and formulate the drought response action plan," Shelly said in his report. "What is realized from the drought and other climate changes, is that we look to new methods of resource and livestock management. This is not a problem that will be easily solved without adequate planning."

While Begaye balked at Shelly's approach to emergency management, he was more hopeful toward his action on government reform.

Begaye supports Shelly's nod to reforming government by streamlining documents as they circulate through the legislative process. Written into tribal statute in January, the Navajo Nation Title 2 Reform Act mandates that reviewing departments have seven days to review documents. If they fail to forward documents onto other departments, their review will be automatically approved and moved to the next department.

"One benefit to it, despite the controller's exemption from the rule is that, hopefully, there will be an online tracking system to help various reviewing parties know where the documents are in the process," Begaye said.

Begaye supports the so-called "seven-day rule" but wishes the contract review or Signature Authority Sheet Review process included the controller for the Contract Administration office, which he sees as a "bottleneck" weakness to Shelly's April executive order.

"If there's a strength in Shelly's report, it would be working at reducing the long delays moving documents through the various departments," Begaye said. "At least Shelly is addressing it, which is a positive sign for making things better for business development. I support that."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.