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Dec. 4—Although an investigator said Mayor Brigette Peterson didn't violate Gilbert's ethics policy for booting three critics from a meeting, the Town Council is forcing her to get training on how to chair a public meeting.
Council members voted 6-0 last week to accept retired Judge Ken Fields' report but reject his findings because they felt he failed to perform a thorough investigation. The council also directed Peterson to undergo open-meeting training from the League of Arizona Cities and Towns and must show on Dec. 12 that she has scheduled it.
"I honor the process and welcome the findings," said Peterson, who was not allowed to vote on the issue or participate in the council's discussion of the report.
"And like the rest of the council, have no hand in this investigation process and am concerned with the appearance of penalizing me by not accepting (the findings) due to the concern about the investigation process that I had nothing to do with.
"It saddens me to see that this is continuing in the community. I've loved this community and I've served this community honorably for many years and will continue to do so."
Since taking office in January 2021, Peterson has been the subject of nine previous ethics violation complaints — all resolved in her favor. The latest complaint was filed by Dr. Brandon Ryff and Ryan Handelsman, who publicly faulted her leadership.
Peterson ordered police to remove two men and Joanne Terry from a meeting last year for silently holding signs at the back of a room that read, "Stop Lying."
Although a woman unrelated to the issue filed an ethics complaint against the mayor last year for the September 2022 removal, an independent investigator found no wrong-doing.
Ryff and Handelsman later filed their own complaint because they said the first investigator, William Sims, didn't interview them. Council agreed and in September re-opened the investigation and forwarded it to Fields.
"I don't believe a proper investigation was done," Councilman Chuck Bongiovanni said. "That is why I don't want to accept the findings of the investigation."
Bongiovanni in August tried to force a vote of no confidence against Peterson but agreed to forgo that and have an outside mediator help repair the council and mayor's relationship.
Bongiovanni said that the council in September voted to reopen the ethics investigation against the mayor with the expectation that he and Councilmen Scott Anderson and Jim Torgeson also be interviewed by Fields.
"Again, witnesses weren't questioned," Bongiovanni said Nov. 28. "Every single council member sitting here tonight should be upset that our directive was ignored and not followed up by the investigator.
"If we vote to accept the findings of this report tonight we will be sending a message that our vote and our directives don't matter because we all know the investigation was not thorough. And it isn't just our vote. It's the voice of every citizen in the great Town of Gilbert who depends on the truth even if it makes us look bad."
Bongiovanni referenced Fields' comment that he did not interview the councilmen because he didn't find it would be fruitful to his investigation.
"How can an investigator make a conclusion that interviewing us would not have been fruitful without interviewing us to determine whether our interviews would be fruitful?" Bongiovanni said. "The only thing that isn't fruitful was the logic within that logic. Fruitful for whom — the town, the citizens, the mayor?
"I would have simply settled for being fruitful for the sake of doing a thorough investigation. When was the decision whether or not to interview myself and Council members Anderson and Torgeson made? Was it made before or after the interview with the mayor?
"Either way it doesn't look good," he continued. "Was the interview with the mayor so fruitful that he determined that interviewing us would not be fruitful?"
Fields did not respond to requests for comment.
Torgeson called Fields' investigation "hilariously indefensible" and "woefully uncomplete."
And Anderson voiced concern that the issue would rise to a First Amendment challenge and pointed to the fact that the town has already lost a case in the U.S. Supreme Court over free speech.
In the Reed v. Town of Gilbert case in 2015, the court unanimously invalidated a town ordinance that treated signs differently based on their content.
Ryff, Handelsman and Terry are suing the town in federal court for allegedly violating their free speech.
The council members all agreed that the matter needed to be put to rest once and for all so they can focus on the business at hand — such as rising inflation cost on projects, the town's build-out and other challenges.
Councilwoman Yung Koprowski was the only council member not to comment.
The mayor's harshest reprimand came from one of her longtime supporters, Vice Mayor Kathy Tilque, who made the motion approved by council. Bongiovanni seconded her.
"Continuing to address the mayor's pattern of behavior is a distraction and can not continue," Tilque said. "It is within the rights of the mayor who is acting as chair to ask for people to be removed from chambers. However, having the right to do it and doing the right thing are two separate issues."
Tilque said that there was no "definitive proof one way or another how disruptive the audience" was at that meeting a year ago as she was participating online.
"What I will say is that the level of unrest and angry residents filling the temporary council chambers in the Public Safety Training Facility has escalated each meeting over several months, which resulted in additional security measures being put in place."
Residents were upset with a developer's proposal to build 300 acres of light industrial adjacent to their Morrison Ranch community. The developer later worked with the residents on a compromise that both could live with and the project is moving forward.
"Based on that escalation, I can image the mayor became overwhelmed and acted poorly in a moment of frustration and anger," Tilque continued. "The bottom line is that removing people from the council chambers should always be the last resort."
The former CEO of the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce said that it falls squarely on the mayor's shoulders to regain control and establish decorum should a meeting become disorderly.
"Sadly, the mayor continues to display inconsistencies in management of meetings during stressful periods, which has brought us to this moment," Tilque said. "This is not a one-off situation but rather a series of missteps that have come at a high cost of our community's reputation.
"I'm saddened that she doesn't acknowledge or recognize that she could or should have handled these situations differently and that ladies and gentlemen to me is an unfortunate lack of leadership and this community deserves better.
"It is because of her actions and lack of willingness to accept assistance and advice regarding these leadership skills leads me to believe that the mayor requires additional training to continue in the role of chairing these council meetings."
She said that should Peterson refuse to attend the training, the council may consider expelling her from the dais.
Tilque added that at the Dec. 12 meeting council also will decide "if there was a need to present any other penalties" on the mayor.
Ryff, who also criticized Fields' investigation at the meeting, commended Tilque for taking the lead "to finally address the mayor's pattern of unprofessional conduct and childish behavior."
"Vice Mayor Tilque recognizes that in order to solve a problem, one must first admit that there is a problem," he said after the meeting.
"It is unfortunate that Mayor Peterson let her ego and temper get the best of her the night she decided to trample the First Amendment rights of me and other residents for peacefully holding small signs with a message she didn't like, 'Stop Lying.'"
Ryff added that he and the others would not have sued the town had the mayor offered an apology and $1.
"Instead of just admitting she was wrong, mayor Peterson decided it was a better idea to waste taxpayer money hiring a team of attorneys to defend her outrageous behavior," he said.
"Our message to the town is clear, we simply want to prevent residents in the future from having their rights violated by any future mayor or councilmember who can't control their emotions."