Council OKs referendum on restructuring chapters

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie, center, presents a bill to include a referendum asking tribal voters whether they want to
restructure the chapter government system on the general election ballot. The council approved  the legislation at a special session on Monday in Window Rock, Ariz.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – Tribal members could be asked to decide whether they want to restructure the chapter government system after the Navajo Nation Council today passed a bill that would create a referendum on the issue.

The referendum would be placed on the Nov. 8 general election ballot and would ask voters to consider consolidating the current 110 chapter government structure into 24 regional governments.

If voters approved the change, it would eliminate the positions of chapter president, vice president and secretary-treasurer and replace those positions with elected commissioners.

Despite attempts to table the legislation and calls for amending the bill language, the council voted 11-6 in favor of the measure.

Its placement on the November ballot is pending a review by Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye.

The president will have 10 calendar days to concur or veto the resolution after it is sent to his office, according to a press release from the Office of the Speaker.

Delegate Leonard Tsosie, the bill’s sponsor, told the council the referendum allows tribal voters to determine whether "regionalization" is in the best interest of the local governments.

Tsosie said the referendum is based on years of discussion, including input from chapter members and work completed by the Title 26 Task Force.

He added that if voters approved the referendum, it would take up to four years to implement the changes.

After hearing the presentation by Tsosie and Mike Halona, chairman of the Title 26 Task Force, Delegate Norman M. Begay reminded the council there are a number of chapters that have difficulty reaching quorum in order to conduct business.

Begay added that elected officials often state their concern about young Navajos not being interested in their chapter government.

"If you change this law, maybe the youth will speak up more," Begay said.

The bill faced challenges from the council floor, including proposed amendments, throughout the special session.

Delegates approved amending a section of the bill language that addressed the number of commissioners assigned to each region.

That section of the bill said 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.

A number of delegates agreed that the number of commissioners should be determined after voters decide whether to approve the change.

The bill's placement before council was also questioned by Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, who questioned the validity of the special session.

Crotty argued that the special session was out of order because the agenda listed one bill despite delegates signing a petition that listed three pieces of legislation.

Levon Henry, chief legislative counsel, said the language used on the petition was written with the anticipation there would be three bills ready for council but two remain in the standing committee process, which meant they were unavailable.

Crotty expressed further concern about the price for convening a special session, which led Delegate Otto Tso to ask about the cost for conducting special sessions.

Speaker LoRenzo Bates said the cost of a special session can be as much as $4,000 due to factors such as mileage and stipends.

The council voted twice on motions to table the legislation, but a majority stated it was important to allow people to decide the issue with their votes.

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