Planned Navajo legislative complex draws critics

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 4-08

Navajo lawmakers are set to consider a plan to build a new council chambers that critics say puts the lawmakers’ own needs above the public’s.

Delegates sit elbow to elbow during quarterly legislative sessions in Window Rock, Ariz., with little room on their desks to lay out documents or use their computers. Council Speaker Lawrence Morgan said that the size of the council chambers and its designation as a historic landmark have made the building increasingly unfit for the council’s business.

The lawmakers will vote on a bill to appropriate $150,000 to Morgan’s office for a construction manager and approve a $50 million loan to build a new council chambers, delegate offices, conference rooms and a kitchen area.

The current council chambers – the first building erected in the tribal capital of Window Rock – would become a museum.

Former council Delegate Woodie Bennett said tribal lawmakers need a new work space – nothing fancy, “just a standard chamber and office.” However, he believes the council should have made an effort to tell people about the project.

“This money they are talking about is public money,” he said. “The public has to know what’s going on with their money.”

No public hearings have been held to gauge whether Navajo voters support the project, said Joshua Lavar Butler, a spokesman for Morgan.

Butler acknowledged there’s criticism, but he said that comes with every project initiated by Morgan or Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr.

“This new legislative building is here for the Navajo people to serve as a symbol of their government,” he said. “Tribal leaders and employees will come and go, but the new legislative building will be here for years to come.”

Groundbreaking for the complex is slated for this summer with construction to be complete next year, Butler said.

Under the bill, 10 percent of unrestricted tribal revenues – about $20 million a year – would be set aside to repay the loan and settle other design and construction expenses. Morgan would oversee the fund.

“The question is accountability,” said George Hardeen, a spokesman for Shirley. “How can the speaker’s office be accountable for these funds when they’re not set up to administer funding levels of this size?”

As a term of the loan, Phoenix-based Key Bank is asking that the tribe keep no less than $50 million in the Undesignated, Unreserved Fund – an emergency fund that the council usually raids during sessions – for repayment of the loan.

If the bill is approved, the council also would be waiving several tribal laws, which the tribe’s Office of Management and Budget said neither “prudent nor sound practice.” Those laws include one that requires a capital improvement plan before a project is financed, a law that requires that outside businesses give Navajo-owned businesses first opportunity to bid on projects and another that requires a competitive bidding process.

The biggest concern to the executive branch and to John Billie, vice president of the tribe’s Aneth Chapter in Utah, is the building’s price tag.

“I don’t like catering to them (delegates),” Billie said. “They should deny themselves first and then help the people.”

Shirley’s staff said he opposes the project not only because of its cost, but because of the waiver of the laws and the fact that the council hasn’t saved for the project and instead wants to pay for it by taking 10 percent of tribal revenues.

Patrick Sandoval, Shirley’s chief of staff, said stories of cramped spaces and dilapidated buildings ring true across the reservation. Many tribal employees work out of mobile homes and the lockup in Dilkon, Ariz., basically is an “old bedroom with a cage,” he said.

“We’re all in that situation, so why are they putting themselves above the Navajo people’s needs and the tribal employees’ needs as well?” he said.

Delegate LoRenzo Bates cast the tie-breaking vote in the council’s Budget and Finance Committee, which opposed the project. Bates said the interest rate for the loan – 4.61 percent – is good and he would support the bill if it’s amended to include funding for jail and court facilities.

He remains concerned, though, about some conditions and terms of the loan and he said the waivers are “just one too many.”

“It will be really interesting,” he said of the upcoming session. “It will set a major precedent in terms of how we do business.”

Delegate Leonard Tsosie applauded Morgan for the amount of work he’s put into the project. Tsosie doesn’t deny that he misses the 10-by-10-foot office he had as a New Mexico state senator. The 88 delegates currently share eight workspaces that measure four-by-four feet.

Tsosie is hopeful delegates can strike a balance between the speaker’s plan for a new building and a public friendly facility that could include vending and patio space.

“It just pops up the image of Navajo leadership,” he said. “We want our government to also look good. If we do a good job, it will look good and people will be accepting of it.”