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Tribal water settlement sparks recall efforts

Felicia Fonseca

Decisions by the top leaders of the Navajo and Hopi tribes to support a water rights settlement have sparked efforts to remove them from office.

A group of eight Navajos filed a petition earlier this week to recall President Ben Shelly in a special election, saying he was wrong to back the settlement and should have involved tribal members in the negotiations. The settlement that recognized the tribe's water rights to the Little Colorado River basin ultimately was shot down by Navajo lawmakers.

"We feel that when he (Shelly) campaigned out here, he was going to listen to the people and go along with them on some of these big issues," said Milton Bluehouse Sr., who is leading the recall effort. "But on this water, he's on the other side of the fence. They feel like he should have been the man standing there, trying to protect our rights, rather than going along with the non-Indian people and accepting what was on his lap."

More than 38,000 signatures _ or 60 percent of votes cast in the last election _ are needed to move the petition forward, a daunting task that must be completed within six months among some 110,000 registered voters. The group also is targeting Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim.

Shelly said Thursday that approval of the settlement would have allowed communities on the western side of the reservation to prosper. His office is gauging whether there is enough support among tribal lawmakers to amend the settlement and bring it back up for a vote. About 30 other entities that are party to the settlement would have to sign off on any changes.

Shelly, who is more than halfway through his four-year term, said Navajos have the right to initiate a recall petition but he disagrees with the allegations. The petition also contends that Shelly disrespected the will of the people, is uninterested in protecting the tribe's resources and is not a responsible leader.

"The reasons for a recall petition are purely subjective and not backed by factual evidence," Shelly said in a statement. "Their reasons seem to be more of an effort to settle personal vendettas from select few who feel my leadership is too strong against their personal agendas."

No Navajo president or chairman has been removed in a recall election, but some have left office early. Most notably, the Tribal Council ousted former Chairman Peter MacDonald in the late 1980s because of a corruption scandal. Ex-Navajo President Albert Hale resigned in 1998 in an agreement to avoid impeachment on allegations of misuse of tribal funds. Bluehouse was appointed to fill part of Hale's remaining term.

On the Hopi reservation, the tribe's past two elected chairman did not serve out their full terms. Ivan Sidney was fired by the Tribal Council following reports he was intoxicated at a Winslow hotel, and his successor, Ben Nuvamsa, resigned.

Some Hopi tribal members are meeting Saturday in Polacca to discuss removing Chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa from office. The tribe does not have a recall process, but elected officials can be removed through a resolution approved by the Tribal Council. Unlike the Navajo Nation, Hopi tribal members must cite specific violations of the tribal constitution or policy to oust someone.

Nuvamsa, who is leading Saturday's meeting, said he has compiled a list of 30 violations against Shingoitewa related to water rights, an attempt to amend the tribe's constitution and hiring of judges in Hopi courts. Chief among his complaints is that Shingoitewa moved forward with a resolution to approve the settlement despite the passage of an earlier resolution objecting to federal legislation on the settlement.

"I think there's too much damage done if he goes unchecked," he said. "He's already attempted to take away village powers through a draft constitution. Now he's trying to do the same with the water rights settlement."

Shingoitewa and Shelly had given U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl permission to introduce federal water rights legislation but told the Arizona Republican that it needed the blessing of their tribes before Congress could take action. Under the settlement, the tribes would have waived further claims to the river basin if the federal government funded more than $300 million in groundwater delivery projects.

Micah Loma'omvaya, chief of staff for Shingoitewa, sees the removal effort as part of a pattern by some Hopis to shake up the government.

"We want to retain some stability here and continue to foster discussions between villages and make sure that the Tribal Council is conducted on a meaningful, regular basis," he said. "They've continually done this with almost every chairman, and this chairman is just the latest target."

The Associated Press