Shirley pleased with go-ahead for special election

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., said Friday he was pleased with the final judgment from the Navajo Nation Office of Hearings and Appeals that found two government reform initiative petitions sufficient to proceed with an election, and which also applied Navajo Fundamental Law to reach its conclusions.

On June 24, in a 37-page ruling, Hearing Officer Judge Carol Perry ordered that both initiatives be referred to Navajo voters for an election within six months.

One initiative is to reduce the size of the Navajo Nation Council from 88 to 24 delegates. The other is to give the President of the Navajo Nation line item veto authority with regard to budget legislation.

"I feel like it's a good decision. It makes my heart glad," President Shirley said. "I sincerely believe that's the way it should be."

The reasons for initiatives, he said, are to bring needed accountability to the Navajo government, to protect tribal money from wasteful spending, and to allow Navajo citizens greater participation in their government.

"The people have been asking for this all along," he said. "In 2000, the people voted 24. The people say, 'We do want 24,' and I don't think we're going to be hurting anybody. I think it's going to be a big help to the people."

President Shirley said the judgment is historic in that it will allow Navajo voters to have a direct voice in the form and shape of their government for the first time since the 1930s.

"The people will have finally spoken about the size of their legislature," he said. "What we are trying to put in place is a fundamental right of the people. Let's see what the people say. I think that the people want it and that's why we're doing everything we can to make it happen."

The ruling voided two sections of the Navajo Nation Election Code because of vagueness. The judge found that the sections deny due process rights and curtail the right of Navajos to petition their government for redress of grievances in violation of the Navajo Bill of Rights.

According to the judgment, the violations occurred because the Navajo Election Administration used "ambiguous and conflicting statutory provisions to disqualify petition signatures on an initiative petition."

Judge Perry also found that the Election Administration failed to set forth the number of signatures found to be insufficient.

One NEA staff member testified that she had highlighted incomplete information on petitions prior to receiving instructions to do so, following a process for recall petitions. However, the requirements for recall petitions and initiative petitions differ.

Judge Perry found that Navajo Board of Election Supervisors' approval of the petition form format "is far from adequate" to meet requirements of the due process notice "especially when it operates to curtail the exercise of a fundamental right to petition one's government and as such is prohibited" by the Navajo Bill of Rights.

"The fact remains that there is no clear statute stating that NEA was authorized to disqualify petition signatures on the basis of the signer's failure to supply complete information," Judge Perry wrote.

Judge Perry wrote that Navajo Fundamental Law was applied in deciding the case despite the objection of the election administration's attorney, Chief Legislative Counsel Frank Seanez. Mr. Seanez had called former Navajo Nation Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Yazzie as a witness who testified that it would be particularly appropriate for Fundamental Law to apply in this case.

Tribal law states that the Navajo courts shall use Diné bi beenahaz'áanii (Fundamental Law) whenever Navajo Nation statutes or regulations are silent on the matter in dispute.

"The application of Fundamental Law in this case supports a finding that the 15 percent signature requirement is not based upon deliberations, reflection and planning required of naa'táanii, ta doo hozooiigo bebikiyasti (leaders not having complete, open, participatory discussions)," Judge Perry wrote.

"Initiatives and referenda are far from a meaningless act," she wrote. "The initiative measures proposed in this case to make changes to the Navajo Nation's governance, to address part of a structure put in place well over a hundred years ago, (by) our relatives who, despite the presence of soldiers holding guns within their reach, dared to unanimously support one man's request that they be allowed to return to this homeland."

President Shirley said he agreed with the finding in the judgment because the people need to be involved in their own government.

"That's what this is all about," he said. "We're trying to make wise decisions to make limited resources go as far as it can. It's the people's money. This is a good start where they people are getting involved. Should we change it or not?"

He said that it is untrue that he is promoting council reduction and line item veto because he doesn't like the speaker or council delegates.

"I'm beside the point," he said. "I get evaluated at the ballot box. I work for the people. There's where I get my cues, too. And the people say this is what they want."

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