Settlement could bring new role for NHA

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, March 7, 2013

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(Times photo – Donovan Quintero)

Council delegate Leonard Tsosie, right, and speaker of the Council Johnny Naize, left, negotiates with the Navajo Housing Authority board Tuesday evening in Window Rock.

A proposed settlement reached after 10 hours of wrangling would result in the Navajo Housing Authority relinquishing much of its authority to the tribe.

In exchange, the Navajo Nation Council will consider allowing the NHA to spin off as a semi-independent corporation.

After "talking things out" Tuesday, members of the NHA, the Navajo Nation Council's Resources and Development Committee, the Naa'bik'iyati' Committee and Speaker Johnny Naize came up with the proposal to settle a lawsuit filed by NHA last summer against several Council committees.

The proposed settlement includes all parties - NHA, the RDC, Naa'bik'iyati' Committee and Naize - agreeing to dismiss the lawsuit filed by NHA against two of the Council's committees in Window Rock District Court without prejudice.

The settlement will become final after the suit is dismissed.

According to the agreement, the legal counsels - Patterson Joe for NHA and Michael Upshaw for the Navajo Council - would file a joint motion for dismissal without prejudice before a March 11 hearing with District Court Judge Carol Perry. Perry mandated the parties on Jan. 2, in granting a motion for preliminary injunction, to sort through the matter.

A joint dismissal without prejudice means that the plaintiffs, or NHA, would be allowed to re-file its claim in the future.

The proposed settlement also includes NHA relinquishing its Tribally Designated Housing Entity authority back to the tribe. This means NHA would no longer be the recipient and manager of grants made under the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act, nor would it manage the housing units already built under NAHASDA.

It would, however, continue to manage units built under the 1937 Act known as "current assisted stock" under NAHASDA.

Naize will designate a task force for the transition of the TDHE.

The settlement also allows legislation to be drafted in support of NHA becoming a Section 17 corporation, a federally chartered corporation much like Navajo Oil and Gas Company. The Section 17 proposal will be subject to debate and approval by the Council.

Incorporating under Section 17 would allow NHA to seek private funds, operate as a business that could leverage its funding, and provide services to all income levels rather than just targeting the needy as it is required to do now.

On the downside, it would have to reduce its staffing by about one-third.

The proposed settlement also addresses the appointment of board commissioners, which was a major issue in the case filed against the RDC for their appointment of four NHA board commissioners, and disputed by NHA in district court.

A provision under the proposed settlement allows the Naa'bik'iyati' Committee to appoint board commissioners if the proposed Section 17 legislation fails at the committee level.

If the legislation passes, the current board commissioners would be the board for the newly created corporation. The current board vacancies would be advertised within the next 30 days.

RDC's Vice Chair Leonard Tsosie (Baca-Prewitt/Casamero Lake/Counselor/Littlewater/Ojo Encino/Pueblo Pintado/Torreon/Whitehorse Lake) said the proposed settlement allowed for both parties to "talk things out," according to the Navajo principle of k'e.

"I commend the Navajo teachings," Tsosie said.

Tsosie added that NHA's relinquishment of TDHE would allow the tribe the opportunity to come up with new ideas in addressing housing for veterans, college students and all those chapters that don't have public housing.

"How do we address housing zones, how do we address businesses in housing sites, how do we do planning?" Tsosie said. "The Council is given an opportunity to present their ideas."

"Section 17 is a good idea and we hope this all comes together like a glove," he added.

The NHA's lawsuit against the Council centers on whether the RDC has authority under tribal law to appoint and reappoint members of NHA's Board of Commissioners. NHA's board comprises of eight positions, with five of the current board members - Edward T. Begay, Shawnevan Dale, Leila Help-Tulley, Wilson Ray and Richard Blackhorse - serving on expired terms. The other three posts are vacant.

The suit was filed after RDC Chairperson Katherine Benally (Chilchinbeto/Dennehotso/Kayenta) on July 23 requested legislation to appoint Leonard Anthony, Kenneth Chester, Steven Yazzie and Clara Gorman as NHA board members.

Benally's RDC legislation replaced Blackhorse, a member of the board who serves as the Utah homeownership tenant representative, with Chester.

On Aug. 14, RDC confirmed the appointments of Anthony, Chester, Yazzie and Gorman as NHA board members. Then on Aug. 18, Begay, chairperson of the NHA board, sent a letter addressed to the RDC demanding the new appointments be rescinded and the committee refrain from making any future appointments to the NHA board.

On Aug. 20, acting Chief Legislative Counsel Ed McCool, who has since vacated his position, and Attorney General Harrison Tsosie responded to Begay's letter. They both cited tribal law that justified RDC's actions.

Two days later, NHA filed for an injunction preventing RDC's appointees from taking office. On Oct. 11, however, the Naa'bik'iyati' Committee accepted and endorsed the RDC's legislation and confirmed the new appointments.

NHA then filed an amended Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction on Oct. 17, adding the Naa'bik'iyati' Committee and the Council speaker to its list of defendants.

The arrival of the proposed settlement was no easy task, as both parties broke into caucuses on four different occasions throughout their 8-hour discussion to negotiate their proposals.

It wasn't until after 8 p.m. that the parties agreed to the proposed settlement.

In his closing remarks to the Council, Begay reiterated the importance of the settlement, saying he wasn't shy about taking the matter back to court.

"If we believe that you did not negotiate with us in good faith, or you are not working to help us achieve our goal, we will not hesitate to go back to court," Begay said.

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