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Navajo Nation court: School board election cannot proceed in general election

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A Navajo Nation district court has ordered that the voting process stop for school boards on the tribe's general election ballot.

Window Rock Judicial District Judge Malcolm Begay ruled on Oct. 24 that the school board election cannot occur because the Navajo Nation Council's Health, Education and Human Services Committee violated part of the process to reapportion school board districts on the reservation.

That committee's action was called into question in a lawsuit filed in August by a school board member.

Begay's written order comes a week before the Nov. 3 general election and during the period for absentee and early voting.

A sign directs Navajo voters to a polling station Nov. 8, 2016 in Upper Fruitland.

Rodriquez Morris, interim executive director of the Navajo Election Administration, said on Oct. 26 that the election continues for chapter governments and other non-school board positions while his office reviews the court order and determines how to implement it.

Ervin Chavez, a member of the Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle Community School Board, filed a motion for a preliminary injunction against the Navajo Nation, Navajo Nation Council, the Health, Education and Human Services Committee and Delegate Daniel E. Tso.

Chavez alleged members of the Health, Education and Human Services Committee, of which Tso serves as chairperson, did not follow tribal law when they selected and approved an apportionment plan for school boards in April.

He also alleged the council committee failed to hold a 60-day public comment period for the apportionment plans, which is mandated under tribal law.

The court did not weigh in on Chavez's allegation that the council committee did not follow tribal law in their approval of the apportionment plan in April.

However, the court addressed the allegation that the council committee did not allow proper timing to collect public comments for the proposed plans.

Voters fill out their ballots during the Navajo Nation general election on Nov. 8, 2016 at the Upper Fruitland Chapter house.

"The acts of the Human, Education and Health Services Committee was in violation of Navajo beehaz'aanii, leading to the lack of participatory democracy, because HEHSC should have at least provided 60 days of public commentary and strictly adhered to statutes, as well as interacting with the public, through k'é and obtaining consensual solutions," Begay wrote in his decision. 

Beehaz'aanii is the Navajo word for law and k'é centers on the relationship between Navajo people.

Justin Jones, an attorney for Chavez, said on Oct. 26 that they are satisfied with the ruling.

"I think the basis of the court's ruling is very much on point, that the Navajo Nation Council and the Health, Education and Human Services Committee did not comply with the law. The law being that you have a mandatory 60-day consultation with the people," Jones said.

Spokespersons for the executive and legislative branches did not respond for comments by deadline on Oct. 26.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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