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Navajo Board of Election Supervisors looks to tribe's attorney general for answers

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. — The Navajo Board of Election Supervisors is turning to the tribe's attorney general for guidance on complying with an order the Navajo Nation Supreme Court issued earlier this week and on emergency legislation the tribe's council passed just after midnight on Friday.

"We want to comply, but we have questions," said Wallace Charley, election board chairman, after a special meeting on Friday in Window Rock, Ariz.

On Thursday, the high court ordered the Navajo Election Administration to comply with tribal law and replace presidential candidate Chris Deschene's name on the Nov. 4 general election ballot with Navajo Nation Council Delegate Russell Begaye, who finished third in the primary election. The court also ordered the election office to reprint the ballot to reflect the change.

The move stemmed from a grievance two former presidential candidates filed against Deschene, alleging he does not speak Navajo, which is a requirement for the office.

Less than 14 hours after the court's order, the council passed a bill that keeps the current Navajo language fluency requirements for candidates seeking tribal office intact but adds that the language proficiency "shall be" determined by the people voting in favor of the candidate.

For now, Deschene, who was disqualified by the Navajo Office of Hearings and Appeals on Oct. 9, remains on the ballot as early voting continues. He is listed with former president Joe Shirley Jr. for the presidency.

In a statement on Friday evening, Stacy Pearson, a spokeswoman for Deschene, said Deschene's will continue.

"We view this (emergency) legislation as the best remedy," Pearson said. "It preserves the fluency requirement and the fundamental law that allows the Navajo people to choose their own leaders."

Under normal circumstances, Wallace said, Begaye would have five days to select a vice presidential candidate and start campaigning. But this year's election has been anything but normal, and the board is not sure how to proceed, he said.

"How does the board handle this? That is the question," Charley said.

The board hopes to receive guidance from Navajo Nation Attorney General Harrison Tsosie. A special meeting with the attorney general is scheduled for Monday in Window Rock, Ariz.

The decision to meet was made after board members spent more than three hours in executive session on Friday.

Before heading into executive session, the board heard from Chief Legislative Counsel Levon B. Henry about an emergency legislation passed by the council.

On Thursday evening, the council debated the emergency legislation for more than fours hours. Voting was done at 12:17 a.m. Friday and the bill passed in a vote of 11 in favor and 10 opposed.

Delegates who voted for the bill were Pro Tem Speaker LoRenzo Bates, George Apachito, Mel Begay, Lorenzo Curley, Charles Damon II, Jonathan Hale, Walter Phelps, Danny Simpson, Roscoe Smith, Leonard Tsosie and Edmund Yazzie.

Those who opposed the bill were Elmer Begay, Nelson Begaye, Russell Begaye, Katherine Benally, Joshua Lavar Butler, Kenneth Maryboy, Jonathan Nez, Leonard Pete, Alton Joe Shepherd and Dwight Witherspoon.

Before 9 p.m. on Friday, Bates signed the bill and submitted it to Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly for his review. Shelly has up to 10 days to sign it into law or veto it, according to tribal law.

If Shelly signs it into law, it would go into effect immediately and apply to this year's election and subsequent elections.

"This law shall be applied retroactively in the interest of justice and fairness to all candidates meeting the 2014 candidacy filing deadline for the Navajo Nation general elections," according to the bill's language.

Charley said members of the election board expect Shelly to make a decision on the bill as soon as possible because it was deemed an emergency.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.