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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Valley City Council members get into heated argument as they adjust to new social media restrictions

Spokane Valley City Council members, from left, Rod Higgins, Jessica Yaeger, Al Merkel, Ben Wick, Pam Haley, Tim Hattenburg and Laura Padden, meet on Jan. 2, 2024.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

A discussion on Spokane Valley’s new social media policy that was hurriedly passed at the end of December turned heated Tuesday when two council members exchanged verbal jabs, leading Mayor Pam Haley to shut down council member questions.

The policy governs council member social media accounts, both personal and professional. Though the policy already was enacted, it was on Tuesday’s agenda for a discussion after Councilman Rod Higgins asked the city attorney to investigate whether the city logo can be used on a council member’s personal social media account. At the time, recently sworn-in Councilman Al Merkel had created a Spokane Valley government group on Nextdoor, a social media site that links users by their neighborhood, and used the city logo. He has since removed it.

Though the new social media policy was approved and became effective on Dec. 19, six current members were violating the rules based on a review of council members’ Facebook pages last week. Only Councilwoman Laura Padden wasn’t in violation – but she doesn’t have a Facebook page.

During Tuesday’s meeting Merkel pushed City Manager John Hohman to detail how much staff time it took to deal with Higgins’ request and what kind of police equipment that could have paid for when Higgins interrupted.

“Point of order,” Higgins said. “Mr. Merkel is turning this into a circus. We’re trying to conduct business here. We need to put this in the governance manual committee and deal with it there.”

After some discussion, Haley asked Merkel to stick to asking questions. In response, he asked Higgins why he had asked the city attorney to look into his social media use instead of approaching him for a conversation.

“Was this the most expedient way to handle this situation?” Merkel asked.

Higgins said the discussion would already be finished if Merkel allowed it.

“Apparently you are going to bring it out here and extend this meeting God knows how long for you self-gratification,” Higgins said.

Merkel interrupted.

“Point of order,” he said. “I take offense to that comment.”

“Good,” Higgins replied. “It was intended that way.”

“Intending offense is against our ethics code in the governance manual,” Merkel said.

“I’m glad you read it,” Higgins said.

At this point Haley intervened to shut down the argument.

“Listen, listen,” she said. “This is a business meeting and we are supposed to be conducting business. That does not appear to be what we are doing.”

A majority of the council, excluding Merkel and Councilman Ben Wick, agreed to send the social media policy back to the committee for revision.

The adoption by the council last month of the social media policy did not follow the city’s normal procedure. Previous additions or changes to the manual were discussed and approved by the governance manual committee before being brought to the full city council for approval.

The last meeting of the governance manual committee was in May. Former Councilwoman Brandi Peetz, who used to sit on the committee with Higgins and former Councilman Arne Woodard, said the social media policy was not discussed at the meeting. Instead, Peetz said Woodard and Higgins instigated a heated conversation about things the two believed she shouldn’t be allowed to do, including serving on community boards and committees as a private citizen, which many council members do. Peetz, who served on a Girl Scouts board among others, said she felt ambushed and bullied, and said the city staff, including Hohman, shut the meeting down

“The three of us couldn’t be in the same room together after that meeting,” she said.

Peetz said Hohman was so concerned by what happened in the meeting that he met with several other council members shortly after to discuss his concerns. Wick confirmed that Hohman did speak to him about the committee meeting shortly after it happened.

“He framed it as, it was not a great meeting,” Wick said. “There were a lot of hot tempers at the meeting.”

In the absence of committee meetings, Hohman said the city essentially used the social media policy in use in Redmond, Washington.

“We were asked to look into it by the mayor,” he said.

Haley said the social media policies were discussed at an Association of Washington Cities meeting last year, but nothing was done initially since few council members used social media. However, new people elected to the council who are very active on social media meant the city had to get a policy into place, she said.

A check of council member social media accounts before Tuesday’s meeting showed that nearly all council members are in violation of the new policy. Most do not have a disclaimer posted that views expressed on the page are their own and do not represent the official views of the council. Among the six council members with Facebook accounts, all are friends with at least one other council member, and some are friends with several.

Liking or commenting on each other’s social media posts, as well as following each other on social media, are expressly prohibited by the social media policy in order to avoid violating the Open Public Meetings Act.

Several council members are friends with Haley on Facebook. Haley said she wasn’t aware that the social media policy approved by the council prohibited following each other.

“I think that’s the first I ever heard of that,” she said when she was asked about her Facebook page Tuesday by a reporter. “We’ll be changing all those things now that we know.”

New Councilwoman Jessica Yaeger made a post on her campaign Facebook page, Jessica for Washington, on Jan. 2 complaining about the selection of Tim Hattenburg as deputy mayor. The social media policy advises council members not to post about “the conduct of city government or the performance of your office.”

In her post, Yaeger complained that three council members – Wick, Haley and Higgins – voted for Hattenburg, who also voted for himself. The three “claim to stand for Republican values” but chose Hattenburg, “who’s known for his progressive, radical far-left ideas.” She called the vote “bait and switch politics” that voters wouldn’t forget.