The Alaska Watchman has obtained dozens of screen-shot images showing four Palmer City Council members engaged in numerous closed discussions about local politics. The problem is that these exchanges took place in a private Facebook group, out of the public eye, which may violate state law.
Alaska’s Open Meetings Act prohibits three or more members of a policy making body from meeting privately to discuss subjects that the body is authorized to set policy on. The screen shot images, however, clearly show Palmer City Council Members Brian Daniels, Sabrena Combs, Jill Valerius and Julie Berberich all taking part in discussions about a whole host of issues which directly pertain to their office.
The discussions occurred on the Mat-Su Moms for Social Justice Facebook page, a private group that organizes support for left-leaning ordinances, policies and political figures.
Most of the screenshots obtained by the Watchman were taken from October and November of 2020.
Oct. 12, Jill Valerius posted a notice urging people to submit letters and emails ahead of a City Council meeting in which the members were to vote for a new deputy mayor. Fellow Assemblywoman Sabrena Combs responded to Valerius’ post, as did Brian Daniels.
Another screenshot shows a discussion on how to create a civilian-led police oversite commission. During that exchange, Combs posted a comment in which she instructed her fellow council members on how to avoid violating the Open Meetings Act while still participating in the private Facebook chat.
“It’s against the Open Meetings Act for any four members of Council to have a discussion – in person, email, or other forma – outside of a called meeting,” she admitted. “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.”
To avoid this, Combs suggested her fellow council members send their comments directly to the page administrator so their ideas could still be shared.
Despite this warning, Combs, Berberich, Daniels and Valerius all took part in a Nov. 4 post that discussed the need to take COVID more seriously in Palmer.
In what appears to be a particularly brazen violation of the Open Meetings Act, Combs posted a notice about her plans to introduce a mask-mandate during a special meeting. Daniels, Valerius and Berberich all saw Combs post and “liked” it.
Another post shows Valerius, Daniels and Berberich all part of a thread discussing how to get “progressive voices” to apply for open seats on city boards and commissions. These are positions that the City Council directly appoints.
An Oct. 31 post shows Combs, Daniels and Valerius engaged in a thread looking at how to call out local businesses for not taking sufficient COVID precautions.
At the council’s last meeting on Aug. 24, Mat-Su resident Mike Coons raised concerns about the private Facebook group. Council Member Richard Best then moved that City Manager John Moosey be directed to hire an independent investigator to look into whether the four council members violated the Open Meetings Act.
“Once that report is done, I will take it to the City Council and it will be their decision on what to do with that,” Moosey said on Sept. 9. “I don’t know how long this is going to take. I just engaged with an investigator and plan to sign the agreement today and then report to City Council next Tuesday on what the status is.”
According to the agenda for the upcoming Sept. 14 city council meeting, Moosey intends to contract with attorney Scott A Brandt-Erichsen of Keene & Currall, P.P.C., in Ketchikan, to conduct the investigation. It is not expected to cost more than $4,000.
Click here for detailed information about the upcoming Palmer City Council meeting on Sept. 14.