Early voting underway in Palmer recall election

Early voting has begun in a special election to decide the recall of three Palmer City Council members over allegations that they violated the Open Meetings Act
Published: Apr. 5, 2022 at 9:20 AM AKDT
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PALMER, Alaska (KTUU) - Early voting in Palmer’s special recall election began on Monday and will continue at Palmer City Hall until Election Day on April 19. On the ballot before voters in the city of Palmer is a recall petition for council members Brian Daniels, Sabrena Combs and Jill Valerius.

Thousands of dollars have been raised both supporting and opposing the recall election of the three council members for alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act that sparked two separate investigations by a Ketchikan law firm.

“I certainly don’t think petty recalls like this are necessary,” Daniels said. “This is a massive waste of our time, our resources, our money, if you really — especially on an issue like this — if you don’t like us run against us. We don’t need to be wasting time and money on this”

Palmer residents can cast their in-person ballot early at city hall from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays until April 18. Voters who wish to cast their ballots on Election Day can vote at either of the two precincts at the Dorothy Swanda Jones Matanuska-Susitna Borough building.

The start of the recall petition initially targeted four sitting council members and began in the fall of 2021. On Aug. 10, Lazy Mountain resident Mike Coons alleged that four council members participating in the closed Mat-Su Moms for Social Justice Facebook group had committed Open Meetings Act violations in 2020. Later that month on Aug. 24, council member Richard Best moved to direct City Manager John Moosey to have an investigation of the alleged violations conducted by an independent law firm based on the claims made by Coons.

“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,” Best said in an August 2021 council meeting.

The council then voted 6-0 to pass a consent agenda at their Sept. 14 meeting which included an informational memorandum to contract Scott Brandt-Erichsen of Keene & Currall, P.C.C. — a Ketchikan-based law firm — for up to $4,000 to conduct an investigation to determine if the Facebook group activity constituted a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Valerius then called into question the time at which Best’s motion was made, alleging that because it occurred after the meeting had gaveled out, it could also be considered a violation. Palmer council members that attend the Alaska Municipal League newly elected official training are given instruction on how the Open Meetings Act affects their communication, and are given updates once a year by the city attorney.

“I’m pretty familiar with it,” Combs said. “I don’t think what we did constitutes breaking the open meetings act. We had it reviewed by an independent attorney, his analysis was pretty ambiguous as well, There’s not a lot of precedence, especially in social media for what constitutes a meeting, a like or a comment or anything of that nature.”

Alaska’s News Source reached out to recall petitioner Cindy Hudgins and recall campaign treasurer Jacquelyn Goforth for comment but they declined to comment.

A legal review was produced by Brandt-Erichsen for both alleged violations, which were then distributed to the council under attorney-client privilege on Sept. 15. However, screenshots of the legal memo were shared on local Facebook groups on Oct. 1. It has since been made public at the request of the council.

Recall petitions for Daniels, Combs, Valerius and then-council member Julie Berberich were then submitted to the clerk designee Kristie Smithers and rejected on Sept. 21. Berberich’s recall petition was rejected due to its close proximity to her run for reelection and the other three were rejected due to incomplete signatures.

“The general discussion of boards and commissions dated October 15, 2020 did include likes or comments from four members, and related to issues upon which the council might have the power to act, but I did not locate any associated council consideration of the topic of procedures for appointments in that time frame,” Brandt-Erichsen wrote in his memo. “... At least one of the streams of communications in October 2020 appears to have violated the OMA. Even if none of the posts contain sufficient detail to conclude unequivocally that the OMA is being violated by the communication, I recommend that council members not participate in communications by social media.”

Petitions to recall Daniels, Combs and Valerius were submitted again on Oct. 25. The petition booklets were issued in November and at least 169 signatures were certified on Jan. 21. Berberich lost her bid for reelection to Pam Melin. Edna DeVries won her bid for Matanuska-Susitna Borough Mayor and her seat was vacated. Steve Carrington was appointed mayor and Carolina Anzilotti was appointed to the council in January. If Combs, Daniels or Valerius are recalled, new council members will be appointed until the next election.

“It’s a scary thing that four of the seven people on the council could be appointed representing our city,” Combs said. “So to me it’s really important that people get out and vote and if they really want to get involved, I encourage them to run.”

According to campaign disclosure forms submitted to the Alaska Public Offices Commission, the group supporting the recall has raised and spent a greater sum than those opposing the recall. The group “No Palmer Recall-Keep Combs-Daniels-Valerius” reported a total income of over $6,000 but has spent just over $1,200. The “RECALL PALMER THREE” group has raised nearly $7,500 and has spent over $5,000 of that.

Daniels said he feels that national partisan politics have gained a voice at local council discussions and helped fuel the recall effort.

“There has certainly been a lot of outside voices influencing this,” Daniels said.

Combs agrees with Daniels and said that the focus from residents who live both inside and outside of Palmer city limits on national political issues during council meetings has taken time away from local governing.

“The things that happen on a national stage are important and we should pay attention to them,” Combs said. “But ultimately there is far more tedious but important things that we deal with on a local level that we have been unable to do because of these huge distractions.”

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