PALMER — The Palmer City Council agenda for the Sept. 14 meeting features an Informational Memorandum directing an investigation of whether or not members of the council violated the Open Meetings Act by participation in the Facebook group Mat-Su Moms for Social Justice. IM 21-005 is listed under the consent agenda, meaning the expenditure of no more than $4,000 to contract attorney Scott A. Brandt-Erichsen of Keene & Currall, P.P.C., in Ketchikan will not be subject to debate unless action is taken prior to the approval of the agenda, but could be approved by a council vote at the start of next Tuesday’s meeting.
“Mr. Brand-Erichsen was recommended by our city attorney as a competent and neutral party,” reads the IM 21-005 summary within the Sept. 14 council agenda.
The Council held both a special and regular meeting on Aug. 24, including an executive session which was not open to members of the public near the end of the regular meeting. Upon returning from the executive session, Councilman Richard Best moved to direct the city manager to conduct the investigation.
“This is a little bit of a different subject and it is somewhat uncomfortable, but we had at the last meeting an allegation made by the public that the city council had breached the open meetings act with members participating in a closed Facebook group and I would like to ask for council support to direct the city manager to hire an investigator to review and to bring back a report to city council as to any findings pertaining to that,” said Best.
Best’s motion was then seconded by Councilman Steve Carrington and received no opposition or discussion by any member of the council. Mayor Edna DeVries then banged her gavel and stated that the meeting was adjourned, but Manager John Moosey raised his microphone and requested further clarification as to what specifically he had been directed to investigate.
“It would be for the city manager to hire an independent investigator and to advise council on whether or not city council did in fact violate state law and any recommendations thereof, so whether or not you need to bring it back in an action memorandum or, if this is something that you can within your budget hire, I will do that to your discretion,” said Best.
The motion was instigated from a previous meeting in August where Mike Coons issued a written statement alleging violations by Deputy Mayor Sabrena Combs and council members Julie Berberich, Brain Daniels and Dr. Jill Valerius.
“I have a question to those four council members whom are part of Moms for Social Justice. When you are conniving together, since all four of you are council members, does that not violate the Open Meeting Law,” wrote Coons.
The contract with Keene & Currall was signed by Moosey on Sept. 9 and signed by the firm on Sept. 10, awaiting council approval of IM 21-005 for the expenditure up to $4,000. The Facebook group Mat-Su Moms for Social Justice includes 349 members and began in June of 2020. Members of the group organized a winter coat drive in 2020 and were scheduled under appearance requests to present to the council in support of a police advisory board in May, but ultimately withdrew out of safety concerns. Best claimed to have viewed screenshots from the group, saying that he believed that violations had been “blatantly” committed by members of the council.
“When it’s a closed group and even there’s some screenshots that are very disturbing in some of the conversations about what if they are found out and how they go deeper and that’s disturbing. And let me rephrase this too, that isn’t the council members stating that, that is just somebody in the group stating that. I want to be very clear about that,” said Best. “I've heard some rumblings that there’s going to be a call for other investigations as well, you know, just to fight fire with fire.”
The Palmer Alaska Buzz Facebook group is a public group with nearly 12,000 members which does not permit discussions of a political or religious nature. There are six Palmer council members (all except Best) that are members of Palmer Alaska Buzz. Best said that he was previously removed by an administrator from the group following negative comments made about him. Council members receive training on the open meetings act at meetings of the Alaska Municipal League, as well as yearly briefings from City Attorney Michael Gatti.
“We’re all trained on the city council about open meetings, the open meetings act, and how we’re not supposed to have serial meetings, we’re not supposed to be in a meeting where a majority of us are there and having a private group where you had four council members in there kind of feels or smells funny shall we say in that context,” said Carrington.
Mat-Su Borough Political Discussions is a private facebook group with 447 members, including DeVries, Combs, Best and Valerius, though no evidence was discovered of any discussion pertaining to council business within the group. While IM 21-005 is currently scheduled for a vote without discussion as part of the consent agenda, Combs plans to move to remove the IM from the consent agenda for council discussion.
“He asked for council support and he got a second and that’s the only discussion that can be had, you can't discuss it during council comments. He was also the last person to speak, so there was no chance of anyone else commenting on it,” said Combs. “I think it’s a witch hunt.
I think that we have a lot larger priorities at hand that we could spend city money on that are far more important than someone's speculations, and if Mr. Best truly feels that there has been a violation, he is welcome to spend his own money on an investigation, but spending city money is not being good stewards of our budget.”
Combs disagreed with other members of the council that violations of the open meetings act had been committed within the Mat-Su Moms for Social Justice Facebook group.
“Absolutely not. We all signed an oath saying that we wouldn’t do that and that goes in person and online,” said Combs.
DeVries expressed her belief that violations of the open meetings act could be grounds for a recall petition against any member of the council, and said that the Palmer council is considerably more strict regarding open meetings than other municipalities. As recently as 2019 and in numerous years past, attendance of the Palmer High School graduation is a highly sought after event, which has been discussed at the council table. Council members were directed to inform the city clerk of their wish to attend, and not more than three members were permitted to attend an event in person. DeVries had also seen screenshots containing the alleged violations, but did not speculate as to whether she felt violations had occurred within the Mat-Su Moms for Social Justice group.
“I honestly don't know, but we have heard from a lot of people that there has been that people have told us that they have screenshots and things like that, but that’s, you know, all hearsay to me,” said DeVries.
Moosey stated that he was required to execute the request for the investigation without a formal council vote under his duties as manager, and that the investigation would then be limited to the Mat-Su Moms for Social Justice group specifically mentioned in Coons’ letter. Moosey’s authority to expend funds prior to a formal vote of the council was discussed previously during the regular meeting relating to purchase of a new plow truck for the city of Palmer. Also on the agenda for the Sept. 14 meeting is Resolution 21-033 authorizing the city manager to purchase a new vehicle in the amount not to exceed $60,000.
“The process for the city of Palmer which I have been told is the city manager can be directed to do anything by a council person with a second at the table. If there is any objection, the rest of the city council asks for a vote on that. If they don't ask for an exception, it moves forward as direction to the manager,” said Moosey. “From my direction, it’s just based on the statement given by Mike Coons about that specific group, so that's the marching orders today.”
The administrators of the Mat-Su Moms for Social Justice experienced staunch opposition to their appearance request concerning the police advisory board in May. While the presentation was scheduled for the 7 p.m., regular meeting, the presenters opted to withdraw their request during the 6 p.m., special meeting as a large crowd in the parking lot had prepared to voice their opposition to the presentation following a call to action from DeVries at a meeting of the “school of government” held at a local church.
“We no longer feel safe coming to the meeting because of the mistruths Mayor DeVries has spread about our proposal, which led to hostility from the community. We also feel that our proposal will not receive a fair hearing in this hostile climate,” said Andrea Hackbarth. “Due to this violent rhetoric, we do not feel safe attending this evening’s meeting. We are mothers with young children at home. The vitriol spread by Mayor DeVries and her friends has made us feel as though appearing at the meeting might mean we won’t make it home to see our children tonight. We are working to make Palmer a better place for them and for everyone who lives in the Mat-Su Valley, and we are disheartened that grown adults have made us feel this unsafe.”
Alaska Statutes 44.62.310-312 pertain to open meetings of government bodies, and include options to void actions taken that would be in violation of the Open Meetings Act.
“Action taken contrary to this section is voidable. A lawsuit to void an action taken in violation of this section must be filed in superior court within 180 days after the date of the action. A member of a governmental body may not be named in an action to enforce this section in the member's personal capacity. A governmental body that violates or is alleged to have violated this section may cure the violation or alleged violation by holding another meeting in compliance with notice and other requirements of this section and conducting a substantial and public reconsideration of the matters considered at the original meeting. If the court finds that an action is void, the governmental body may discuss and act on the matter at another meeting held in compliance with this section. A court may hold that an action taken at a meeting held in violation of this section is void only if the court finds that, considering all of the circumstances, the public interest in compliance with this section outweighs the harm that would be caused to the public interest and to the public entity by voiding the action,” reads 44.62.310 section F.
“(2) "meeting" means a gathering of members of a governmental body when
(A) more than three members or a majority of the members, whichever is less, are present, a matter upon which the governmental body is empowered to act is considered by the members collectively, and the governmental body has the authority to establish policies or make decisions for a public entity; or
(B) the gathering is prearranged for the purpose of considering a matter upon which the governmental body is empowered to act and the governmental body has only authority to advise or make recommendations for a public entity but has no authority to establish policies or make decisions for the public entity,” reads sections of AS 44.62.312.
The investigation comes less than a month before the city of Palmer will hold local municipal elections on Oct. 5 for two available council seats. Carrington and Berberich are running for reelection. Lee Henrikson and Pamela Melin have also filed to run for the council seats. Mayor DeVries is also seeking election this fall, running for the office of borough mayor on Nov. 2.