Navajo Nation presidential candidates agree election must continue

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Navajo Nation presidential candidates Joe Shirley Jr. and Russell Begaye agree it is time for the people to vote.

In separate telephone interviews on Wednesday, both candidates stated that the latest action taken by Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and the Navajo Nation Council are hindering the people's voting rights.

On Tuesday, Shelly and Speaker LoRenzo Bates, on behalf of the council, issued a statement explaining their reasons for challenging the Navajo Nation Supreme Court's ruling for the April 21 special election.

The statement also explained that Shelly filed a motion to intervene on Tuesday following the council's March 24 filing of a petition to have the high court reconsider its order to the Navajo Election Administration to proceed with the special election as scheduled.

Judicial branch spokeswoman Karen Francis said Wednesday the high court has not issued any decisions on the filings.

For both candidates, the latest actions are adding more confusion to an election that has been filled with legal filings, decisions and delays.

Shirley, who finished first in the Aug. 26 primary election, described the actions taken by Shelly and the council as "not right."

He added that Shelly's action is "self-serving," and since Shelly was not re-elected by the people, his authority to speak on behalf of the people is nonexistent.

"What we need to do is continue with the election," Shirley said. "It needs to go on ... the people need to vote."

Begaye, who finished third in the primary, said during his campaign stops he has heard voters saying they are tired of waiting to cast their ballots.

Some are going as far as describing the actions of tribal leaders as "a bunch of little kids squabbling over who has power," he said.

Begaye replaced second-place finisher Chris Deschene, who was disqualified in October for refusing to take a Navajo language fluency test.

Both candidates also voiced concern over the reputation the election dispute is creating for the Navajo Nation among federal, state and tribal governments.

Edison Wauneka, executive director of the election administration, confirmed on Wednesday that the special election will proceed on April 21, and the early walk-in voting process continues.

"It's continuing because the Supreme Court hasn't made any type of response," Wauneka said.

In the high court's March 20 decision, the justices ordered the election administration to turn its attention to conducting the special election rather than to the referendum to amend the language fluency requirements for the presidency and vice presidency. The referendum was approved by the council and by Shelly in March.

Shirley and Begaye said they are open to such legal reform, but it should be completed in a timely matter and not rushed, like the actions of the council and president propose.

In addition to the filings by the president and council, the Navajo Nation Department of Justice filed a motion for clarification on behalf of the tribe's acting controller, Robert Willie.

Willie has been serving as acting controller after former Controller Mark Grant resigned in February.

The statement goes on to explain that the high court showed disregard for the tribe's instructions for appropriating funds when the justices ordered Willie to transfer $317,000 to the election administration to replenish the department's operating budget.

According to the court document, Willie met with Wauneka and Dominic Beyal, executive director of the Office of Management and Budget, to discuss possible funding sources.

During the meeting, funds were identified that could be transferred to supplement and replenish the election administration's budget, but Willie lacks the authority to transfer the funding because the tribe's Budget Instruction Manual outlines the process for budget reallocation or budget modification.

The court document states that requests for supplemental funding are outlined in the Appropriations Act.

"Such appropriations come from the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance and must be recommended by the appropriate oversight standing committee and the Budget and Finance Committee, and must be approved by the Navajo Nation Council," the court document states.

The court document explains that Willie is not taking a position on the litigation but is asking the high court to clarify how to proceed with funding the election administration within the context of tribal laws.

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