— By Alysa Landry —
The Daily Times
SHIPROCK — Nearly 400 Navajo voters signed a petition Friday to bring two government reform initiatives to ballot in November.
The initiatives, sponsored by President Joe Shirley Jr., call for reductions in the legislative branch and presidential line item veto authority.
If passed, the measures would cut the 88-delegate tribal council to 24 delegates and allow the president the final say on certain budget items or supplemental appropriations.
"This is our government," Shirley said through an interpreter. "We have the ability to change it. Let's take this back to the people."
Shirley stopped in Shiprock on Friday to rally support of the proposed reform and to collect signatures on a petition addressed to the Navajo Board of Election.
The visit was the first of six across the Navajo Nation, and at least 25,000 signatures are required to put the measures on the ballot for the November election.
"If people see a need for change, then it should happen," Shirley said. "If the people make their voice known and continue to push for change when they're voting, then government has no choice but to listen to the people."
Shirley, who is serving his second term as president, announced the formation of a government reform task force during the council's spring session in April. The call came weeks after the council overrode his veto of a $17 million appropriation for weather-related emergencies, scholarships, housing and veterans assistance.
Shirley faults the council for its lavish personal spending, including $25,000-per-year stipends, travel costs, meeting reimbursements, payments for sponsoring bills and other benefits. In addition, delegates voted last year to spend $50,000 on gold rings.
The council habitually spends more than three times its annual budget, according to a Navajo Nation analysis of financial data. The fiscal year 2006-07 budget allotted
$10 million to the council, but its expenses topped $32 million.
The mismanagement of funds is what prompted many voters to put their names on Shirley's petition Friday.
"The reason I signed it is because the council misuses our money," said Everett Howe, of Shiprock. "They pull the money out of other organizations and use it for themselves."
Howe, a retired law enforcement officer, said he would like to see the council reduced to 12 or 15 delegates.
"County commissioners, state representatives and members of Congress all represent thousands of people," he said. "We don't need this many delegates. I'm really looking forward to a change."
In his argument, Shirley cited a 2005 study commissioned by the council to evaluate its effectiveness. The study found the governing body often does not hear issues as a full council and its oversight committees spend more than half their time micro-managing the executive branch.
The executive and legislative branches also have been at odds over a proposed $36 million legislative complex.
Critics of the measures claim the push for reform would cause disharmony and division in the government. Council Speaker Lawrence Morgan released a statement Thursday claiming council reduction alone would not solve the serious problems facing the tribe.
"Concerns about the efficiency of Navajo Nation government operations are much broader than the size of the Navajo Nation Council," he said. "Real government reform must include both the executive branch as well as the legislative branch of the Navajo Nation government."
If Shirley gathers the required signatures on his petition, the measure to cut the tribal council to one-third its size would go to the people a second time.
Voters passed the same measure in 2000 by a 2-1 margin, but Navajo law required a super-majority vote, meaning a majority vote was needed in each of the
Navajo Attorney General Louis Denetsosie has indicated that only a simple majority, or 51 percent of the vote, is needed this time.