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Merkel calls on Spokane Valley City Council to acknowledge, correct ‘misstatement’

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(The Center Square) – New Spokane Valley City Councilmember Al Merkel’s tenure in office has been plagued by allegations, a harassment investigation and quarrels with other members.

Last week, the council repealed and replaced more than 20 sections of its Governance Manual, a guide for the council on how to act and conduct official business. During the meeting, Merkel said he believed the changes were approved to bypass his comments and questions regarding certain agenda items.

“I have a lot of comments about this Governance Manual that is very clearly pointed at me in almost every section,” Merkel said during Tuesday’s meeting.

The third time was the charm for Merkel, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the council in 2017 and 2019.

While Merkel was elected in November and took office in January, he’s been the center of attention over the past few months.

Now sitting in Position 3, the new council member has the community somewhat divided over his status and behavior. Merkel frequently finds himself at the center of attention during weekly meetings.

Jan. 9 was the first time Merkel was at odds with the council, regarding a social media account he started on the app Nextdoor in which he used the city’s formal logo alongside his comments.

While Merkel’s Nextdoor account did have a disclaimer, adding that it was not used or authorized by the city, several other council members were concerned that viewers could perceive it as an official account. While Merkel removed the city logo, issues continued over the account.

City Manager John Hohman and City Attorney Kelly Konkright discussed the possibility of city-sanctioned social media accounts. However, the consensus was that members should avoid the “legal pitfalls” associated with their personal and professional lives.

“This is very apparently about me,” Merkel responded in the meeting.

During a March 5 meeting, Hohman announced that a third-party investigator had been hired in response to complaints that Merkel had “engaged in offensive, hostile, or unwelcome interaction with city hall employees.”

Merkel was asked to limit his time at city hall to weekly council meetings and only to interact with Hohman or Deputy City Manager Erik Lamb during the investigation. While present at the meeting, Merkel did not comment on the situation at the time.

Merkel is currently being sued in Spokane County Superior Court over allegations he fostered a hostile work environment and discriminated against a female employee when he worked at Sequoia Detox Centers in 2020, The Spokesman-Review reported last month.

During the same March meeting, Merkel’s Nextdoor account was again questioned over comments made following an executive session on February 27. Merkel had posted on his account that the council privately voted on a land acquisition, which would have violated state law.

It turned out the council discussed the potential purchase during the executive session and then voted publicly during the regular session, following the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

Merkel had already corrected the mistake – six hours later – after someone else pointed it out.

In response to his actions, the council voted to reprimand Merkel, leading to several citizens rising during public comments to support and reprimand him themselves.

The council’s patience for Merkel seemed to end during last week’s meeting when the group amended the Governance Manual.

One change allows the council’s presiding officer to rule comments as not pertinent, which Merkel complained was not per Robert’s Rules. The rules he referred to are a widely adopted framework for meetings run on parliamentary procedure.

However, Hohman told Merkel that the change was discussed and agreed upon at the prior meeting and that the council is not tied to or obligated to follow Robert’s rules, to which Merkel starkly disagreed.

The ordeal led to Mayor Pam Haley almost cutting Merkel’s microphone during the evening meeting.

“We can cut your mic off,” Haley said, “or we can go ahead and take a brief break to talk to someone so they can let you know what’s appropriate and what isn’t.”

Following the meeting, Merkel contacted Haley, Hohman and other officials in an email Merkel provided to The Center Square.

He pointed out that the meeting minutes from March 12 state that the council reached a consensus over the phrase “per Robert’s Rule of Order” in section C, subsection 6 of Chapter 1.

Although a review confirms the consensus, the Governance Manual does not reflect the phrase as discussed. According to the email, Merkel contended that Hohman originally acknowledged the consensus despite denying the language at last week’s meeting.

“I would like to know what steps the city will take to inform the public and correct the record about this serious misstatement or lie (it remains to be seen which),” Merkel said in the email, “and how in the future city staff will ensure that similar mistakes are not made, especially given [Councilmember] Higgins’ assertion that we are not to ask questions about issues merely pass them.”

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