Bill proposes referendum for tribal voters

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie speaks during a presentation before the start of the spring session on April 18 in Window Rock, Ariz.

FARMINGTON — A new bill is asking Navajo lawmakers to place a referendum before tribal voters, asking them to approve consolidating the nation's 110 chapters into a regional government structure.

The bill, which was posted July 9 on the Navajo Nation Council's website, asks the council to place the referendum on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

The referendum would require a simple majority of votes in order to pass, according to the bill.

If voters approved the measure, it would consolidate the current 110 chapters into 24 regional governments. It would also eliminate the positions of chapter president, vice president and secretary-treasurer and replace those positions with elected commissioners.

The proposed ballot language explains that chapters with fewer than 1,000 registered voters would be represented by one commissioner, and chapters with more than 1,000 registered voters would be represented by two commissioners.

There are 11 chapters in the Northern Agency that have more than a 1,000 registered voters, according to the Navajo Election Administration office in Shiprock.

The chapters would remain as nongovernmental communities, and the transition would occur within four years, the bill states.

Delegate Leonard Tsosie, who represents the Baca-Prewitt, Casamero Lake, Counselor, Littlewater, Ojo Encino, Pueblo Pintado, Torreon and Whitehorse Lake chapters, is sponsoring the bill.

The bill was assigned to the Resources and Development and Naa'bik'íyáti' committees and to the council, where final authority rests.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Tsosie said the referendum was developed based on a recommendation from the Title 26 Codification Task Force Committee. The task force was formed by the Resources and Development Committee in May 2015, and membership includes personnel from the Office of Navajo Government Development, the Land Department, the Department of Justice, the Office of the Auditor General and other entities.

If regional governments were established, the amount the tribe allocates to chapters for administrative and operational costs could be reduced and funds to provide services at the local level increased, Tsosie said.

The total amount of funding distributed in the fiscal year budget is divided among the 110 chapters, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

For the proposed fiscal year 2017 budget, the Budget and Finance Committee recommends approximately $11.8 million for nonadministrative costs, approximately $3.8 million for capital infrastructure and $13.7 million for operational costs, according to figures provided by the OMB.

Chapters also receive sales tax revenue, which is also divided between the 110 chapters, according to the OMB.

Earlier in the year, the Office of Navajo Government Development held public education sessions to present information about amending the chapter government system. Tsosie said he attended a number of sessions and heard several comments opposing the change.

"It's an idea, and I've been telling chapters to give it a chance. …We hope the people will give it a serious evaluation," he said.

After the standing committees consider the bill, it could go before the council during a special session in August, Tsosie added.

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