The new mayor of Gilbert has spent the first months of her term embroiled in a series of multiplying scandals.
First, in June, emails surfaced in which the mayor, Brigette Peterson, tipped off a local developer to opposition from constituents. Then, allegations resurfaced that Peterson, while a city council member, had dissuaded a woman from running for office because she was Black. And this month, an employee filed a complaint against her, alleging that she created a “toxic work environment” — by ridiculing his team for creating what she called a “hideous” town logo.
The scandals have heated up town council meetings, and her relationship with the developer spurred an ongoing ethics investigation. But, this week, tensions in the town reached new heights, when Peterson advocated for a series of ordinance changes that would give her new power to limit residents’ speaking time at meetings.
Outcry ensued. Gilbert resident Brandon Ryff, one of the mayor’s most vocal critics, called it “a move to silence the voice of the people.” Another critic warned that “tyranny” was imminent.
The proposed ordinance changes first appeared this week without fanfare, tucked into the city’s 750-page agenda packet. They include: Limiting constituent comments at city meetings to “a duration determined by the mayor” instead of three minutes per resident; transferring the power to extend public comment to the mayor, instead of the council; and instituting new limits on presentations and comments in public hearings to — again — “a duration determined by the mayor.”
Furthermore, public notices for special meetings would be posted at only one location — not three. And public comment would no longer be given a 15-minute time allotment. The length would, instead, be decided by the mayor.
The legality of the proposed changes is unclear: Arizona law does not require that public bodies host public comment at all, but it does require that such public comments be subject to "reasonable time, place and manner restrictions." Jared Keenan, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, wrote in an email to Phoenix New Times that the "attempts to place unfettered discretion solely in the hands of one elected official to decide whether or for how long the public may comment on important public business" were "troubling."
The optics, as Gilbert Councilmember Laurin Hendrix observed Tuesday, were bad — “unbelievable,” he said, given the scrutiny the mayor was already facing. But was the proposal a genuine power grab?
At a tense city council meeting on Tuesday night, council members investigated.
The town's attorney, Christopher Payne, said the proposed ordinance changes addressed "inconsistencies in the code" and described them as "clean-up language."
But over the course of the meeting, it became clear that the mayor had, in fact, requested that the attorney “do a little digging,” in her own words, and draft the proposal. “Apparently,” Hendrix said, “she suggested at least some of these changes be made.”
For her part, Peterson has insisted that the proposed changes were intended simply to update the city’s outdated code.
“There’s nothing malicious behind it, like is being insinuated by members of the council and the public this evening,” she said. Payne, she explained, “came back to me with these recommendations” when she asked him to update city code that the town had not been complying with.
“I like to follow rules,” she added.
In an email to New Times sent soon after publication of this article, Peterson reiterated that she had only meant to update town code, and was prompted to do so after being "approached by a council member and members of the public asking questions about how communications from citizens works."
Yet, as councilmembers noted on Tuesday, the updates appear to focus solely on giving the office of the mayor more authority over meetings, without addressing other, genuinely antiquated aspects of the code — like, say, a provision that requires that anyone who disrupts a council meeting be jailed until they pay a fine. In fact, the mayor’s changes would expand that provision to include anyone who disrupted a study session, as well as a typical meeting. “That’s archaic,” one councilmember said.
And, furthermore, the code had not been altered in decades — nor had it appeared to pose an issue. “Were you laying in bed one day, thinking, I don’t have enough to do today — I think I’ll go update the code from 36 years ago, that hasn’t had any problems?” Hendrix asked.
“Whatever the thought process was to bring this forward now, of all times ... this needs to disappear,” he concluded. The council tabled the matter indefinitely.
The controversy hinged, of course, on the fact that Peterson is currently under scrutiny for several scandals that arose since she took office in January. Some residents had begun pushing for a recall campaign as a result of the alleged misconduct, regularly appearing at town meetings to express their concerns.
In June, widely circulated emails showed that Peterson had informed a local developer, whose planned development and rezoning in a sleepy neighborhood had attracted fervent opposition from some residents, of actions that her constituents were taking against the project. She named one resident by name in the emails, calling him “the most aggressive.”
“Always appreciate the heads up,” the developer wrote in response.
There was reason for residents to be suspicious, even before the emails were released: That same developer, Howard Morrison, had also co-chaired Peterson’s mayoral campaign, and, furthermore, had donated $6,000 to her efforts. The ethics investigation into the emails, which is being conducted by a law firm retained by the city, is still ongoing.
Regardless of the intent of the proposed code changes, Peterson’s critics see the move as retaliation for their opposition to the mayor — and their push to challenge her term in office. Gilbert resident Jim Torgeson told New Times that he was certain that the move was "in reaction to the number of citizens speaking against the mayor," and was evidence that their efforts had unsettled her.
[The article was updated after publication with comments from the mayor.]