PALMER — The Palmer City Council will conduct two investigations on whether the Open Meetings Act was violated by members of the council following two separate incidences. The Council met on Tuesday and passed Informational Memorandum 21-005 to hire Keene & Currall, P.P.C., of Ketchikan to investigate allegations made by Mike Coons that were moved by Councilman Richard Best at the council’s August 24 meeting. Best did not participate in Tuesday’s meeting that ran nearly three hours and was excused as absent.
IM 21-005 was on the consent agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, and contained the up to $4,000 expenditure to hire Keene & Currall to conduct the investigation on the initial alleged open meetings act violations. Deputy Mayor Sabrena Combs moved to remove the item from the consent agenda for council discussion.
“It’s not appropriate for it to go under new business because there can be no business conducted on it so I’m going to rule your motion out of order,” said Mayor Edna DeVries.
By a 6-0 vote with Best absent, the consent agenda passed and an investigation will be conducted on Combs and council members Julie Berberich, Brian Daniels and Dr. Jill Valerius who were members of the Facebook group Mat-Su Moms for Social Justice during a period in 2020. At the August 24 meeting, Best moved to direct City Manager John Moosey to investigate the members following an allegation of violations from Coons, which was seconded by Councilman Steve Carrington.
“I just wanted to let you all know; it’s against the Open Meetings Act for any four or more members of Council to have a discussion — in person, email, or other format — outside of a called meeting. Since the four of us are tagged in this post, if anyone, other than me now, writes in this thread, we will be violating that rule. I don’t want anyone to think we aren’t being responsive if we don’t comment on these threads, as that’s the likely reason,” wrote Combs on the group last year.
At the end of the meeting on Tuesday, Valerius began her comments by having interim city clerk Nichole Degner play the audio from the August 24 meeting, where DeVries gavels the meeting out and Valerius exited meeting zoom. DeVries stated that the meeting was adjourned before Best gave further clarification on his motion to the Manager.
“The fact that there was business conducted within a quorum of the meeting, I had already dropped off of zoom then, so I’ve learned of this at a later date. A majority of members are present and form what I can tell with this resulting in action, this is very likely an open meetings act violation and I would like to ask for Mr. Gatti as to appropriate steps that we need to do to potentially cure a violation in statute 44.62.31 section F,” said Valerius.
City Attorney Michael Gatti responded that he would report at the next meeting with direction for the council as to whether an open meetings act violation had occurred with Best’s comments after the meeting had adjourned on August 24 and possible actions to cure the potential violations, which are permitted by law within 180 days.
During the two hour and 45 minute meeting, one hour and 41 minutes of the meeting was devoted to listening to public comment, almost all of which concerned IM 21-005 that had passed with the consent agenda and the initial alleged open meetings act violations. There were 43 testimonies entered into the record in total with only two whose comments did not directly pertain to the alleged violations on Facebook. There were 19 in person testifiers, some of whom testified twice, and another 16 testimonies that were submitted via email and read into the record by Degner. Of the 41 testimonies total that were addressing the open meetings act, 22 were given in opposition to the initial investigation and 19 were given in favor of IM 21-005.
“I want to thank Councilman Best for not only listening to my previous testimonies but reading those same testimonies and acting on the concerns of the potential violation of the law and the case of the open meetings law. Unlike many of the left, I fully believe in the presumption of innocence until the evidence and legal process determines guilt. Then of course, that finding must result and again following the law as to punishment,” said Coons. “Those of us that live in the greater area of Palmer and identify as Palmer residents, we all want a city council that is above reproach and one that we can count on to follow the laws of the United States, the state of Alaska and those ordinances passed by the city council for the city of Palmer.”
Numerous testifiers in favor of IM 21-005 submitted screenshots from Mat-Su Moms for Social Justice to the clerk to be entered into the record following their testimony, none of whom wore a mask while speaking. While the alleged violations took place in 2020, currently four members of the council are part of a separate private Facebook group that was not mentioned in either open meetings act violation investigation. With 447 members, Mat-Su Borough Political Discussions is a private group that features DeVries, Combs, Best and Valerius. Members of the public who offered screenshots from Mat-Su Moms for Social Justice claim that four members of the council participated in the post either by commenting or clicking “like” on the post, but no evidence was discovered of policy that passed the council related to the online discussions.
“I believe the language of the open meetings act lacks the specificity necessary to identify violations on a digital platform. I speculate that providing clear definition in this particular document would approach a danger zone of impinging the first amendment. The potential for a thing to exist does not mean a thing exists and this is where I think the OMA fails to define its scope,” said Randi Bernier. “I believe there are simpler solutions, though I won’t claim to have all variables at my disposal to craft an elegant one. Reviewing and revising employee conduct agreements in accordance with modern communication tools would be a great start. For example, council members should have no issues owning a Facebook account, but council members should not join private access groups in an effort to mitigate any suspicion of abuse. At this point I feel it is necessary to state that I’m not entirely opposed to an investigation, my concern is that substantive arguments haven’t been made nor sufficient probable cause defined to justify this expenditure of taxpayer dollars. The issue clearly has a lot of nuance that I don’t believe can be resolved in a $4,000 investigation.”
As the first member of the public to comment, council candidate Lee Henrikson noted the sections within Palmer Municipal Code pertaining to parliamentary procedure, which prohibit applause following comments that contain a stance made by a member of the public and direct the chair of the council to maintain control of the meeting. Following many comments made by members of the public in favor of IM 21-005, applause broke out. Jackie Goforth had members of her group hold large printouts of screenshots behind her as she spoke to the council. Mayor DeVries did not speak into her microphone to tell the over 40 people gathered within the small council chambers to cease their outbursts, but waved her hand. The issue was brought up as a point of order by Councilman Brian Daniels, and noted by more members of the public during their comments. Moosey confirmed that there had been recall petitions filed against Berberich, Combs, Daniels and Valerius. The recall petitions are being handled by current Clerk Kristie Smithers and going through the process outlined in code, but will not appear before voters on October 5.
Following the tense meeting, listening to nearly two hours of public comment on one single issue, Deputy Mayor Combs was visibly emotional as she offered her council comments.
“I would encourage anyone in this room that has notions about my beliefs or things that I’m bringing forward to talk to me. There’s a lot of assumptions about where I stand on lots of different things that is news to me from the people in this room. I have an open door policy. My phone number is posted online, my home address is posted online, my email address is posted online. Reach out to me, I am your council member,” said Combs. “I hope you would extend that courtesy to me rather than coming here and making assumptions about who I am as a person.”
[This article has been edited to clarify the process by which recall petitions are being handled by city staff.]