Mat-Su

Three Palmer city council members face recall over Facebook group participation

PALMER — The ballot for Tuesday’s special election in Palmer is simple: Do voters want to recall city council members Sabrena Combs, Jill Valerius, and Brian Daniels?

The rationale behind the recall campaign — and the people aligned against it — is more complicated.

Combs works in community relations for Palmer-based Matanuska Electric Association, Valerius is a doctor who started a medical practice in Palmer, and Daniels is co-owner of 203 Kombucha, a Palmer business.

Recall backers accuse the trio of violating Alaska’s Open Meetings Act by joining and occasionally participating in a closed Facebook group originally called Mat-Su Moms for Social Justice.

The recall ballot specifically accuses all three of violating the law, a claim partially supported by a city-funded investigation last year.

“Secretly conducting discussions related to council business as a quorum” violates the law, the Recall Palmer Three group says on its website. “The bigger issue is the result of the violation. Say no to mask mandates, police oversight, and whatever else they secretly planned in these backdoor meetings.”

Recall opponents No Palmer Recall say the three council members are “under attack by a partisan group” that wants to dismantle the way Palmer residents choose their elected officials.

“Sabrena, Brian, and Jill work for YOU, as Palmer citizens, and have Palmer’s best interest in mind for all decisions they make,” the group’s website says. “Recall campaigns aren’t the right way to get someone out of office — Palmer holds yearly ELECTIONS by the PEOPLE to elect their representation. That’s the fair and transparent way to have good representation in our great city.”

An investigative report requested by the city last year said the Facebook postings by the group raised “serious concerns about” compliance with the Open Meetings Act.

The report’s author, attorney Scott Brandt-Erichsen, determined that one “stream of communications” regarding a mask mandate proposal appeared to have violated the law but any violation that may have occurred was remedied by lengthy public testimony and discussion.

The council rejected the proposal after three long hearings and hundreds of public comments, mostly in opposition to the mandate.

The report also referenced Facebook discussions involving a proposal for a police advisory board. Those posts did not involve a quorum of the body and there was no violation, Brandt-Erichsen found.

[Group shelves Palmer police advisory board proposal amid threats, accuses mayor of lying ‘to create outrage’]

Brandt-Erichsen recommended council members not participate in communications on social media or email when a quorum is present and discussion involves matters the council has the power to decide.

Recall backers had raised nearly $7,800 in campaign contributions as of this week, according to the Alaska Public Offices Commission. Recall opponents had raised more than $16,000.

Contributors to the anti-recall effort include former U.S. senator and Anchorage mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat, and Jesse Sumner, a Mat-Su assembly member with solid Republican credentials.

Sumner, who took heat from conservatives for his stance, said he isn’t politically aligned with the council members and never expected to find himself listed as a top contributor alongside Begich for anything.

His problem is with recalls in general, Sumner said in an interview this week. He was the subject of a failed recall effort and also didn’t agree with a recall against Gov. Mike Dunleavy that ended last year.

“If everybody has to constantly face recall elections then I think you’re not going to get people that ever want to rock the boat in any way,” Sumner said, adding that sometimes voters want a change. “If any time you upset either side politically you’re going to face a recall for very little reason, then you’re going to have a hard time finding politicians that will actually affect change.”

Begich, too, opposes recall efforts in general, which is why he didn’t sign or donate to the Dunleavy recall, he said. “I have taken some heat from my Democratic friends.”

Early voting on the special election is already underway at Palmer’s City Hall. The special election is Tuesday with polling places in Mat Su Assembly chambers and the Mat-Su Borough gym.

If the recall is successful, the remaining members of the body will appoint replacements for any open council seats. One council member was recently appointed, so if all three sitting council members are recalled, that would mean four out of seven council members would be appointed rather than elected.

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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