Back to the chairman system?

Shelly discussing ideas for Navajo Nation government reform

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Nov. 3, 2011

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President Ben Shelly is in talks with tribal leaders about the possibility of giving the Navajo people a chance to vote on government reform initiatives at next November's elections.

Sherrick Roanhorse, Shelly's chief of staff, said a number of options are being looked at as to what kind of proposal to present to Navajo voters in November 2012 that would allow them a greater say in the running of the government.

"Right now, the governing body of the tribal government is the Navajo Nation Council," he said. "We want to have the law amended so that the power will be with the Navajo people."

One possibility under discussion, according to Roanhorse, is to ask the Navajo people if they want to go back to the chairmanship form of government.

The Navajo Nation was ruled under a chairmanship form of government for almost 70 years until the Council in 1989 approved reforms in the aftermath of the suspension of then chairman Peter MacDonald Sr.

The reforms basically stripped the chairman of most of his powers and turned them over to the Council and the newly created position of speaker of the Council.

At the same time, the new system was viewed as temporary with the idea that the Navajo people would eventually be allowed to choose what type of government they would like to see put in place.

But as the Council grew stronger, the promise of government reform was placed on the back burner until Joe Shirley Jr. won the election of 2002 on a platform of government reform and began pushing to change the government.

The movement for reform gained even more favor among Navajo voters after it was revealed that millions of dollars in discretionary funds meant to help low-income Navajos was diverted by Council delegates to payouts to their relatives.

Shirley attempted unsuccessfully to run for a third term to continue his government reform efforts, saying that he did not think any of the candidates then running for the position would push for government reform if elected.

Shelly did not run on a platform of government reform and was not expected to push for it because of his close ties with the Council. But since taking office last January, Roanhorse said, Shelly has been holding town halls throughout the reservation and is hearing from a lot of tribal members about their dissatisfaction with the way the government is structured.

"The people have told him that they want to hold tribal leaders more accountable," Roanhorse said.

Roanhorse said Shelly has listened to the people and is trying to figure out how to satisfy their wishes.

The option that seems to be the easiest is to place the question before the voters either through a referendum or an initiative and allow the people to determine what kind of government they want in power.

Voters showed their dissatisfaction with how the government was structured in 2009 when they were given the chance to vote on the size of the Council. Despite a hard-fought battle by members of the Council, the people voted to reduce the Council from 88 to 24 members.

Now, said Roanhorse, Shelly is hoping to give the voters another chance to make the government more efficient and the leadership more accountable.

There are still a couple of major issues and the biggest is exactly what type of change will Shelly propose? Roanhorse said Shelly still is discussing this with his staff and others in the government.

A decision will have to be reached soon because if he is not able to get a majority of the Council to support his proposal, he would have to go the same route that Shirley did when he put the Council reduction question on the ballot. Sixty percent of voters would need to agree to put it on the ballot.

Roanhorse said Shelly is also looking at that process to allow the Navajo people to weigh in on one of his personal goals - to make the Navajo Reservation smoke free, including within the tribal casinos.

Shelly tried to get this approved by the Council but the delegates balked at making casinos smoke free after Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise officials said it would reduce revenue by as much as 30 percent.

Shelly is now hoping, said Roanhorse, that anti-smoking groups on the reservation will start an initiative to get the question on the ballot so that the Navajo people will be able to make the decision.

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