A citizen-led recall effort is currently underway to remove three left-leaning Palmer City Council members after a city investigation found they likely violated Alaska law prohibiting elected officials from meeting in quorum to privately discuss matters which they are empowered to act on.
Recall advocates started gathering signatures on Nov. 12, after petitions were approved by the city clerk for Council Members Sabrena Combs, Brian Daniels and Jill Valerius. All three, along with former Councilwoman Julie Berberich, were part of a private Facebook group – Mat-Su Moms for Social Justice. The leftist organization advocates for political and social issues such as critical race theory, community oversight of police, mask mandates, Black Lives Matter protest marches and more.
According to a city financed investigation, conducted by attorney Scott Brandt-Erichsen and sent to Palmer City Manager John Moosey on Sept. 15, the council members in question engaged in behavior that raised “serious concerns.”
One instance in particular was most troubling, according to Brandt-Erichsen. In late October 2020 there was a Facebook thread about a proposed mask mandate being pushed by the four council members. The full city council later took the issue up at a Nov. 8 meeting which generated considerable public opposition and was ultimately rejected after multiple nights of extended and passionate public outcry.
“I believe that a court would find that the discourse in the Facebook group with a quorum of the city council members participating, even if not fully debating the public policy issue, constituted a meeting under the OMA (Open Meetings Act),” Brandt-Erichsen said in his report. “Further, I believe that a court deciding the issue would find that the lack of public access and notice for that meeting violated the OMA.”
Brandt-Erichsen said the Alaska Supreme Court has clarified that a “meeting” includes “every step in the deliberative and decision-making process when a governmental unit meets to transact business,” and he concluded that there is a “substantial likelihood that the Alaska courts would follow this reasoning” and find that the Palmer City Council members did, indeed, break the law.
Since the Alaska Supreme Court has held that compliance with the Open Meetings Act is a “duty of office,” Brandt-Erichsen said “violation of that duty is sufficient grounds to form the basis for a recall petition.”
Recall petitioners now have until Jan. 11, 2022, to gather at least 169 signatures from qualified City of Palmer voters in order to put the recall question to a vote.
Cindy Hudgins is one of three signature gatherers, and she could use some help from registered City of Palmer voters.
“We could use as many as we can get,” she said. “The more we have the sooner we can get this done.”
Hudgins said she hopes to get a few Palmer business owners on board at petition sponsors so they can help gather signatures at local storefronts. The goal is to get at least 300 signatures, but more would make a strong statement, she said.
“I know the girl who I’m working with – she wants a 1,000 because she wants them to see that we have this much support, and they might as well resign now,” Hudgins said.
Ultimately, Hudgins said the recall effort is about restoring faith in Palmer politics.
“We’re looking for integrity and honesty,” she said. “With the secrecy that went on with this – planning things to bring up to the board behind the backs of citizens of Palmer – it wasn’t right, and we would like to have open transparency in our city council where things are discussed at a meeting, and where the people have a chance to speak.”
The wording of all three recall petitions is nearly identical, claiming that Valerius, Combs and Daniels violated the Open Meetings Act which demonstrates a “failure to perform duties of office and is a legal ground for recall.”
The petitions state that from “October 13, 2020, to mid-Summer 2021, a quorum of Palmer City Council knowingly engaged in discussions relating to future council business, meant for deliberation at future council meetings, in a closed Facebook group with partiality. Council members Brian Daniels, Sabrena Combs, Jill Valerius, and Julie Berberich engaged in meetings or serial discussions, and according to a legal review were found to have violated OMA on at least one occasion.”
The petitions add that the council members engaged in “numerous discussions relating to council business” and lists the number of discussions for each person.
The controversy over the alleged violations spilled over at the Nov. 9 Palmer City Council Meeting when Councilman Richard Best called on the three members to tender their resignations immediately.
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“With the release of all the documents, the acceptance of the recall petitions, I will now ask for the resignations of those members who are still on this body to submit immediately, so the City of Palmer can move forward,” he said in his closing comments. “That way we can stop spending citizens’ money on chasing the tail of this thing. It went on for over a year. I’m done.”
Fellow Councilmember Pamela Melin, who narrowly defeated Julie Berberich in the recent October election, said the City Council should formally reprimand Daniels, Combs and Valerius for their actions.
If Palmer residents are successful in the recall attempts, it would mean that all four left-leaning councilmembers would be ousted following a one-year period in which the conservative block was a 4-3 minority on the seven-member council.
— Click here for the latest announcements of the recall Facebook page.
— Contact recall petitioner Cindy Hudgins at (907) 982-0056.