Forums let voters question reforms

By Jason Begay
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Nov. 19, 2009

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Despite the funding uncertainty dogging the Dec. 15 special election, efforts to educate the public about what's at stake are moving full steam ahead.

Several chapters have held forums inviting President Joe Shirley Jr., leader of the effort to reduce the council and expand presidential veto authority, to make his case to the public.

Forum schedule

The schedule for the remaining public forums on the Dec. 15 ballot proposals to reduce the council from 88 to 24 members, and grant the president line-item veto power over council spending bills, is as follows:

  • Sunday, Nov. 22, starting at 3 p.m. at the Chinle Community Center. Raymond Joe and Tom Lapahe, at-large delegates for Blue Gap, Tachee and Whippoorwill, and Johnny Naize (Cottonwood/Nazlini/Tsélani) are invited to present their views and answer audience questions.
  • Sunday, Nov. 29, starting at 3 p.m. at the Greyhills Academy High School auditorium in Tuba City. Katherine Benally (Dennehotso), Kee Yazzie Mann (Kaibeto) and Leslie Dele (Tonalea) are the invited delegates.
  • Sunday, Dec. 6, starting at 3 p.m. at a location to be determined in Shiprock. Delegates George Arthur (Nenahnezad/San Juan/T'iistoh Sikaad), Ervin Keeswood (Tsé Daa Kaan) and Rex Lee Jim (Rock Point) are invited.
  • Sunday, Dec. 13, starting at 3 p.m. at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock. Omer Begay (Cornfields/Greasewood Springs/Klagetoh/Wide Ruins), Lorenzo Curley (Houck/Lupton/Nahata Dziil), Curran Hannon (Oak Springs/St. Michaels) and Speaker Morgan are invited.

Ganado, Shiprock, Mariano Lake and Indian Wells have held information sessions with Shirley. A group of Arizona State University students also held a forum in Tempe, Ariz.

However, most of the forums have seen little to no participation from council delegates who oppose the ballot initiatives.

"If they showed up, we could have a nice discussion," said Leonard Tsosie (Pueblo Pintado/Torreon/Whitehorse Lake), one of the few council members who has spoken in favor of putting the proposals before Navajo voters. "If they don't show, it becomes a one-sided discussion and that's not what we want."

Tsosie has taken it upon himself to organize a series of public forums in which, ideally, advocates could discuss both sides of the initiatives and answer voters' questions. However, delegates opposing the initiatives have been reluctant to partake.

The first forum was held Nov. 15 in Crownpoint. Tsosie invited council members Alice Benally (Crownpoint/Nahodishgish), Young Jeff Tom (Mariano Lake/Smith Lake) and Speaker Lawrence T. Morgan (Iyanbito/Pinedale), but none appeared to present the case against change.

In a Nov. 9 memo to Tsosie, a copy of which was obtained by the Navajo Times, Tom questioned Tsosie's impartiality.

"I take my job very seriously and would not want to engage in your tactics at these 'forums,'" stated Tom, who did not explain what tactics he felt were objectionable.

Tom's memo went on to say the public has enough information on the initiatives to make a decision.

"There is no law or requirement that these 'forums' be held," Tom stated. "The Navajo people have been provided the information necessary to cast their vote on the issue subject to your 'forum.' This is a personal issue on the part of the voter to cast their vote with the information provided to them thus far."

Tsosie responded with his own memo, dated Nov. 12.

"You do not need laws to tell you to keep the Navajo public informed," he stated. "That is inherent in our duties."

The Crownpoint forum was originally scheduled at Navajo Technical College, but the school's governing board abruptly withdrew its permission without explanation two days before the event. The meeting took place at St. Paul Catholic Church.

"It seems like the church is the only place not afraid of the council," said Tsosie, who accused the NTC board of being "spineless" and surrendering to its fear of retaliation by the delegates (see Letters, Page A-6).

Tsosie has scheduled five forums, one in each agency, in the weeks leading up to the scheduled election. He has invited three delegates from each region, and Shirley, to participate.

So far, none of the invited delegates have formally responded, while Shirley has said he will attend each forum, Tsosie said.

"We are being respectful, inviting them so we can keep the public informed," Tsosie said. "We can't drag them there."

Kee Allen Begay (Many Farms/Tsé Ch'ízhí), who took part in the student-sponsored forum at ASU on Oct. 28, was unhappy with how that event went.

"It was a set up," Begay said. "I felt like a target."

Instead of asking his opinion on the ballot questions, Begay said he was bombarded with questions about the council's decision two days earlier to place Shirley on administrative leave. He explained his position, he said, but did not get to speak much about the initiatives.

Tsosie maintains that the public forums are important, and is paying for those he is organizing out of his own pocket. KTNN is scheduled to broadcast the events live, and phone lines will be set up to take calls from people who can't attend in person, he said.

"This is the first time Navajo people are being asked to vote on the structure of their government," Tsosie said. "I take it very seriously. We should not keep this away from them."

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