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Colorado attorney is governing Utah county, commissioner says

San Juan administrator resigns amid political 'circus'

The Arch Canyon area of Bears Ears is seen as members of the media get a chance to fly over the national monument with EcoFlight on Monday, May 8, 2017.
The Arch Canyon area of Bears Ears is seen on Monday, May 8, 2017. Kelly Pehrson, San Juan County's chief administrative officer for eight years, resigned effective Friday to take a job with the Utah Department of Agriculture. His resignation marks the latest turn in the county's continuing political unrest.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Kelly Pehrson, the chief administrative officer for San Juan County, has resigned to take a job as the state's deputy director of agriculture for a new opportunity —but also because he says the two freshmen county commissioners have either ignored him or froze him out at every turn.

"Since I have been administrator, I have tried very hard to have these commissioners work with staff, but they have refused. Somehow they have been coached to not discuss anything with staff," Pehrson said Monday.

"The commissioners are the bosses of the county. They are supposed to be working with staff to run the county, but morale has been at an all-time low because they have been listening to outside voices."

The outside voice he and others appear to be referring to is an attorney from Colorado.

The political dynamics shifted on the San Juan County Commission last general election when incumbent Rebecca Benally, a Navajo, lost to challenger Kenneth Maryboy, another Navajo, in an extremely tight race.

Willie Grayeyes, a Navajo, successfully ran against Kelly Laws in a partisan race for the seat vacated by Phil Lyman, who took a seat in the Utah Legislature to replace outgoing lawmaker Mike Noel.

The outcome of the election was closely watched in light of a December 2017 federal court ruling that gave the Navajo a significant majority of voters in two of the three districts.

Even before the two new commissioners took office, however, they sought advice from Durango, Colorado, attorney Steven C. Boos — former chief legal counsel for the Navajo Nation — on drafting resolutions, navigating the legislative process and to craft an ouster campaign against San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws, according to documents Boos sent to the commission obtained by the Deseret News.

Kendall Laws is the son of Kelly Laws, who lost in the commission race to Grayeyes.

Boos wrote a letter to Grayeyes and Maryboy, reaffirming their long relationship and advising them not to trust the county attorney. In a Novembermemorandumto the two freshly elected commissioners, Boos laid out a roadmap for adopting a resolution ordering Kendall Laws to take action regarding litigation over the last several years. If the county attorney didn't comply, the Boos memorandum explains what avenues could be taken against Laws, including legal action or administrative sanctions.

Ultimately, a resolutionwas drafted to sue Kendall Laws asserting that as county attorney he did not comply with previous directives related to the Bears Ears issue. That resolution involving Laws has not yet passed the commission, but is under consideration and was discussed at the last meeting.

Kendall Laws was at the center of a controversy involving Grayeyes' citizenship in San Juan County and his eligibility to be a candidate. The county attorney probe came after another commission candidate, Wendy Black, lodged an official complaint about Grayeyes' residency. A 7th District Court judge ruled in January that Grayeyes was legitimately a resident of San Juan County.

"There is nothing wrong or prohibited about your use of an outside attorney to assist you," Boos wrote them last month, and emphasized that communications between him and the commissioners are exempt from disclosure under Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act.

"You have no duty to share the substance of our conversations or any written communications we have had regarding these resolutions," he wrote.

Deseret News efforts to reach Grayeyes, Maryboy and Boos for comment on this story were unsuccessful. A voicemail and a text message were left with Grayeyes on his cellphone; Maryboy did not respond to an email sent multiple days ago and he does not have a mailbox set up on his cellphone.

Boos was in meetings all day Monday, according to the woman taking calls at his Durango office.

The flurry of resolutions drafted by the attorney and pushed by the two new commissioners is prompting counter threats by some residents in the community who are fed up with what they say is outside, unelected influence running the affairs of government.

"It appears the county is being governed by an attorney from Durango, Colorado," Bruce Adams, San Juan County's other commissioner, said Monday. "And now we lose (Pehrson), one of our most important county employees."

At a contentious public commission meeting on April 16, Monticello resident Kim Henderson said Maryboy in particular was not acting in the interest of county residents.

"As an elected official, I would think you would choose to listen to local voices over legal or special interest groups," she said. "The way you have been governing since you took office is not transparent, far from."

She complained the resolutions are being passed with little public input and with little advance notice. During the meeting when she gestured toward the residents behind her, Maryboy referred to them as the "peanut gallery."

Maryboy openly said he did not trust Kendall Laws, the county attorney, but did not explain why he has not met with other staff.

"The only person I would go to is our attorney, but I don't trust him," he said.

At that same meeting, resident Shanon Brooks offered to facilitate a meeting between the commissioners and Laws before any lawsuit is filed.

He also voiced his frustration.

"I've been asked why I come across so strong and it's because I am frustrated," Brooks told the commission. "If I saw evidence of county commissioners caring about what the public had to say, if I saw evidence of them caring about other people's opinions and really seeking to understand the county citizenry, I would not come across so strong."

Before his fellow commissioners voted to approve a resolution to withdraw from a lawsuit that has San Juan County supporting President Donald Trump's reductions at the Bears Ears National Monument, Adams instead unsuccessfully proposed that any official county position be put to a vote in a public referendum.

Grayeyes and Maryboy passed the resolution. Adams voted against it.

Adams said Pehrson's departure is a loss for the county.

"This is a very sad day for San Juan County," he said in a prepared statement. "Kelly is truly the working backbone of this county. I want to thank Kelly with all my heart for his dedication to his job. He will be missed more than we know. I wish him well in his new job and thank him for his dedication to San Juan County."

Perhson said it broke his heart to leave, but the chaos in San Juan County is too much.

At a training last week for the trio of county commissioners put on by the Utah Attorney General's Office about open meetings laws and public records requests, Adams was the only commissioner to attend. A three-year effort to get sewer lines out to Spanish Valley is now on hold despite multiple public meetings and $5.9 million in secured funding. Residents of the neighboring Pack Valley called for the commissioners to put it on hold.

When it comes to the resolutions, Henderson and others remain determined to fight the resolution issues at the ballot box.

"We want it to go before a judge to stop any more resolutions from going forward until there is a public vote on the issue," she said.

Henderson said she does not believe the turmoil in San Juan County falls along racial lines, pitting Anglo against Native American, political lines or even on the public lands issue.

"I feel the unity is stronger than ever in San Juan County. The problem is our voices are just not being heard. We have two commissioners who refuse to listen and one commissioner whose hands are tied," she said.

"It is a circus and we have to do cartwheels right through it to be noticed."

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly indicated Kelly Laws is the son of Kendell Laws. He is actually his father.