Naize: A year rebuilding Council's reputation

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Dec. 29, 2011

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Times file photo

Johnny Naize presides over a Navajo Nation Council meeting

When Johnny Naize was selected by members of the Navajo Nation Council in January to be their next speaker, he knew he had a daunting challenge ahead of him.

"Our first priority was to get Title 2 revised," he said recently in his year-end interview, pointing out that even though Navajo voters had approved reducing Council membership to 24, tribal laws and procedures were still geared in January to an 88-member body.

"It wasn't easy," he said, pointing out that the new Council had to meet at times until midnight or 1 a.m. to put in place a new organizational structure.

But the job isn't over yet, he added.

"We are still going to have to do some fine-tuning," he said. "There are still several areas where we need to make some changes."

As 2010 ended, it seemed to many that the 88-member Council still had hopes that one day the laws could be changed again to increase the size of the Council back to its former size.

But the current membership seems to have adjusted to the new makeup and Naize said the feeling now is that it is "up to the people to decide what size the Council will be."

One of the selling points of reducing the Council during the debate over the proposal was that a smaller size would cost less to run. But that didn't happen. In fact, the cost to run the legislative branch was higher this year than in the past.

Naize said that was because the delegates had to hold a lot of meetings early in the year to address the changes that were needed. Since this has now been done, the costs will go down in future years, he said.

Delegates all working

The delegates themselves, he added, have had to make some adjustments since most now represent as many as eight chapters, which requires them to attend more chapter meetings and deal with more constituent needs.

And the fact that the number of committees has been reduced by more than half means each delegate will have more legislation to consider in committee.

All of this has led to a shifting of responsibility, Naize said, adding that delegates are relying more on chapter officials to take up some of the burden that the Council took care of in the past.

It also means changes in the legislative branch operation, Naize said.

One change now in the formation stage and expected to take effect early in 2012 is the addition of more staff to help the various committees do their jobs.

Another effect of the reduction, Naize said, is the quality of the people who were elected.

With 88 members, it was possible for some members to sit on the sidelines and allow the others to take a leadership role but with 24, everyone is expected to work hard.

"We're finding that with 24, the delegates are more educated and they ask a lot of questions," Naize said.

Another problem Naize faced when he took office was that public opinion of the Council was at probably its lowest level in history. Years of news about corruption in the Council, culminating in criminal and then civil charges against almost everyone in the previous Council, have seriously hurt the Council's image, Naize said.

For this reason, one of his priorities was to prove to Navajo voters that they could trust the new Council to represent their views and govern in a fair and reputable manner.

All the talk about the special prosecutor has affected those in the Council who are still facing charges, he said.

"I know that they have the special prosecutor on their mind when they go to sleep at night," he said.

Of the special prosecutor's investigation, Naize said he wants "to get this whole mess behind us - the sooner the better."

As for Naize, he said he realized when he was chosen as speaker that he needed to rebuild that image and he thinks the current Council is doing that by working hard and coming up with legislation that will better meet the needs of the people.

Meeting into the night to get work done has also helped show the Navajo people that the Council is working hard and not wasting money.

However, the current delegates, a majority of whom are incumbents from the previous Council, still find ways to be in Las Vegas, Nev., during the Indian National Finals Rodeo and the National Finals Rodeo, on the tribe's dime. As entrenched as the practice is - and as far beyond the Navajo Nation as it extends - it's still viewed as an abuse of power and a waste of tribal funds, according to letters sent to the Navajo Times.

Naize said his position has been to allow the committees to make the decision on where they will meet "as long as they have the money in their budget to do so."

He feels the same way when committees find themselves having problems with the divisions they oversee.

Improved branch relations

While most of the committees are working well with the executive branch divisions, problems recently cropped up between the Law and Order Committee and Public Safety Director John Billison, with Billison reportedly accusing committee chairman Edmund Yazzie of micromanaging DPS.

Naize said he's optimistic the two sides could resolve their problems.

That aside, Naize said he's seen a big improvement in the way legislative and executive branch leaders treat each other.

Last year, the relationship between the branches deteriorated to the point that legislative officials fought with not only the president but the chief justice as well.

And at times the delegates seemed intent on removing both Chief Justice Herb Yazzie and President Joe Shirley Jr. from office.

Naize said one of his goals was to work with President Ben Shelly and stop the infighting that was hurting the tribal government's image on and off the reservation.

"Shelly is a good friend," Naize said, adding that if there is a problem between the legislative and executive branches, the two leaders should sit down and try to work it out rather than go after each other in the press.

As for 2012, Naize said the Council needs to address the problems still faced by Navajos living in the former Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute area, where development was essentially frozen for decades.

"We have not forgotten them," he said. "We have to do a lot of lobbying to get them the money they need to make their life better."

He said the Navajo Nation also has to be realistic and look at the fact that federal dollars will not be as plentiful in the future as they have been in the past.

This means that the Navajo Nation may have to step in and help those programs, and especially those that provide services to the Navajo people, that have been affected by cutbacks, Naize said.

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