Navajo lawmakers approve buying new airplanes

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, shown here giving his State of the Nation address on Monday at the Council Chambers in Window Rock, Ariz., will be presented a bill that calls for securing a loan to purchase three new tribal aircraft.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — The Navajo Nation could be on its way to securing a $20 million loan to purchase new airplanes.

The Navajo Nation Council voted 13-5 Tuesday to purchase three King Air jets. A portion of the loan would also pay for pilot training, warranties and maintenance costs.

In an interview after Tuesday's session, Delegate Davis Filfred said he sponsored the bill because the tribe currently owns three plans that are more than 30 years old, and safety is a concern.

Each airplane has had its engine overhauled three times, the maximum that is allowed, and if the aircraft are not replaced, the entire fleet will be grounded starting next year, he said.

In terms of safety, he said one of the latest incidents occurred when a number of delegates were flying from Window Rock to meet Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in Salt Lake City earlier this year. One of the engines started leaking fuel, resulting in an emergency landing in Kayenta, Ariz., he said.

“We need to buy these planes. …We’re long overdue for this,” Filfred said.

Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty was among the five tribal lawmakers to oppose the bill.

During the council’s debate, Crotty continued to question the validity of purchasing the new jets. While she agreed the current airplanes are old, she expressed disappointment with a statement made by Virgil Brown, executive director of the Division of General Services, about how the tribal government would stop working if new planes were not purchased.

She added that technology, such as teleconferencing, could be utilized if travel by airplane weren't possible.

Crotty also asked for the names of individuals who use the airplanes but was told by Joe Berardesco, the tribe’s air transportation director, that information is confidential.

“It should not be confidential information when Navajo Nation people’s money (is) being used for transportation costs,” Crotty said.

Delegate Jonathan Perry opposed the bill, as well.

In his statements to the council, he said more information about the loan and a report about the condition of the current fleet were necessary in order to make an informed decision.

Perry added that he has never flown on the airplanes.

“Any travel I have done, I have done on my own,” he said.

Delegate Lee Jack Sr. spoke in favor of the legislation, stating that the president, vice president and council use the planes to travel long distances, and replacement is necessary.

“This has been talked about for a long time,” Jack said.

The bill will be submitted to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye for his review. After it is submitted to Begaye’s office, he has 10 days to sign it, veto it or use his line-item veto authority.

The council approved Filfred’s second bill, which authorizes $500,000 in supplemental funding from the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance for the Teec Nos Pos Chapter to renovate its chapter house in Arizona.

The request was made because the chapter administration has been operating from the Navajo Nation Veterans Office since May after the chapter house roof was heavily damaged by rain.

The chapter house was also deemed unsafe for occupancy in February by the Navajo Nation Occupational Safety Health Administration.

Delegate Herman Daniels Jr. said he supported the bill because the community needs a place to gather for government meetings and social purposes.

“Once we rebuild a place for them, they will use this facility for years to come,” Daniels said in the Navajo language.

Another bill the council passed would require applicants for the Navajo Nation Supreme Court to have at least a bachelor’s degree. It also would require the chief justice to have earned a law degree.

The council did not approve legislation that would have asked voters to approve using the principle balance of the Permanent Trust Fund to build judicial and public safety facilities.

Some delegates said they favored developing a comprehensive list of unmet needs of communities across the Navajo Nation.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.