Former leader Zah casts vote to reduce council

By Jason Begay
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Dec. 3, 2009

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

Former Chairman and President Peterson Zah waits for his name to be called Wednesday to vote yes for the council reduction and line-item veto in Window Rock.

There is no basis for the number 24 when using it to talk about the number of council delegates the nation should have but the same goes for the number 88, said former Chairman and President Peterson Zah.


MacDonald: Council reduction won't change a thing

Zah cast his early ballot Wednesday in the special election regarding the government reform initiatives that would reduce the council from 88 to 24 members. 

Early voting began Nov. 16 and continues through Dec. 11, which is the last day to submit early and absentee ballots to an election agency. After that, all ballots must be submitted on election day, Dec. 15, said Edison Wauneka, Navajo Election Administration director.

Zah, who served as both chairman and the first elected Navajo Nation president, said he voted to reduce the council. He also voted in support of giving the president the authority to veto portions of council-approved spending bills, called a line-item veto.

"Twenty-four might not have a good basis for a number of delegates," Zah said. "But this is a chance to have change."

And as far as he is concerned, any change would be good.

"This has the possibility of positive things coming out of it," Zah said.

Throughout the nation, voters are debating whether they are better served by 88 delegates or if 24 might be a tighter ship.

President Joe Shirley Jr., who presented the plan as part of his government reform initiative, has said reducing the council to 24 would reign in spending. Delegates say the nation has adapted the 88-member council successfully and anything less would result in loss of  the public voice the government.

Zah said both figures are arbitrary.

"There is no basis for both numbers," Zah said. "There is nothing magical in either number."

However, the key to this election is change, he said.

This isn't change against the council, but change in the government could lead to even more reform efforts in the future to the point where the delegates and chapter duties are redefined in the future, Zah said.

Both sides, the executive branch and the legislative branch have acted questionably. Specifically, he referred to the discretionary funds, money the council grants to itself and to the president to give to constituents in emergency situations.

"Both sides had discretionary funds," Zah said. "Both did not want to release it. Why both sides?"

Delegates have also argued that larger chapters would swallow smaller communities come election time. People's votes in the larger chapters would far outnumber those from neighboring smaller communities.

"Those people who say that have the notion that delegates will have the same duties," Zah said. "If people go with 24, there is so much other potential."

For instance, delegates could become more like senators and more power could shift to the chapter houses to strengthen community government.

In light of recent events, Zah said this could be the prime time for enacting change in Navajo Nation government.

The council is facing a public relations crisis following a slew of news stories detailing misspent discretionary funds by delegates.

In addition, the council's vote to place President Joe Shirley Jr. on administrative leave while not releasing the related details to the public have made the council a target.

Zah said he expects a large number of voters going to the polls merely reacting to recent events.

"People are really upset because of the turmoil," he said. "They are looking for any way to better the situation."

Still, such change is meaningless if the public does not take better notice of current events and pay attention to their government. After all, a government is as strong as the representatives elected into office.

"Some people might have made the mistake of putting the wrong people into office, and now we're being put through all of this dilemma," Zah said.

A smaller number of delegates could help the public focus on the issues before voting on a representative, he said.

The Navajo Nation government has evolved into a system that is centralized in Window Rock, Zah said.

"I hear about people saying that they are going to lose representation," he said. "But they never had representation. How can you lose something that you never had to begin with?"

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