While recommending the Gilbert Town Council take no action against Peterson, the report from Tucson attorney Frank Cassidy did conclude she “exercised poor judgment in a few instances.”
The report also stated council has the authority to decide whether an ethics violation occurred, and if so, what penalty should be applied.
Peterson expressed relief at the report’s conclusion, which she said she expected.
“I really hope that we can put this behind us and move on,” Peterson said by phone Oct. 1. “I continue to work really hard for this community every single day and will continue to do so in the future.”
Among the complaints, Peterson was accused of tipping off developer Howard Morrison, who helped run Peterson’s election campaign, about resident complaints regarding his plans for multifamily housing in their neighborhood; squelching residents' comments at council meetings; and creating a toxic work environment for a town employee whose work on a town logo she did not like.
In the ensuing weeks, she received strong criticism and demands to resign from a few people during the public comment portion of town council meetings, including from Jim Torgeson and Brandon Ryff, who filed three of the five ethics complaints, and her opponent in the past mayoral election, Matt Nielsen.
Morrison Ranch complaints and report findings
Two residents, including Ryff, filed ethics complaints about the Morrison Ranch apartment proposal, charging that Peterson had failed in her responsibility as a public official to treat residents with fairness and respect.
They accused her of having a friendly tone with Morrison, a mocking tone in regard to neighborhood opposition, sharing inside information with Morrison, identifying to Morrison one resident as the most aggressive; and being dismissive of residents’ concerns on proper notice.
However, Cassidy found that Peterson showed no policy preference by wishing Morrison luck before what was certain to be a contentious meeting with residents; that her tone with residents was neither mocking nor unprofessional; that it was debatable whether information shared helped or hurt the project, and she helped residents understand the process; that identifying a resident as the most aggressive was poor judgment but did not rise to the level of an ethics violation; and that the mayor should have referred the notice concerns to staff for review, but that the developer generally met his notice obligations except for a three-foot discrepancy on placement of a notice sign.
The two complaints also charge Peterson with a conflict of interest in regard to Morrison, of betraying confidential information, not getting code of ethics training and improperly attempting to persuade the two residents not to submit ethics complaints against her
Again, Cassidy found Peterson’s relationship with Morrison does not create a conflict of interest under the Arizona conflict of interest statutes; that constituents emailing officials do not have a reasonable expectation of confidentiality; that no council member has received ethics training but they should at some point in their terms; and that the record does not support the complainants’ contention that Peterson improperly used her authority for the “purpose of intimidating, threatening, coercing, commanding or influencing” them from filing a complaint.
Remaining complaints and findings
A complaint from a town employee about creating a toxic work environment was found to be unsupported by any evidence and that her disdain for the new town logo is not an ethics violation.
Torgeson, who owns a sign-making shop and ran for council in 2016 and applied for appointment in 2020, filed the final two ethics complaints.
In the first, he accused Peterson of attempting to expand her authority over public comment at council meetings by “knowingly and willingly attempting to mislead the public and her fellow council members either by acts of omission, deception and outright lies” by not placing the item on a study session agenda, placing the item on the consent agenda, failing to identify herself as the item's originator, and placing it at the end of a long agenda.
However, Cassidy found that while Peterson could have scheduled a study session on the item, it was not required; the item was not on the consent agenda but in a public hearing; that nothing requires a council member to identify themselves as bringing forth an item on the agenda, but that Peterson nonetheless said in her public comments she took the item to Town Attorney Chris Payne; and that the item was appropriately placed by being where a public hearing on a town amendment traditionally is placed. Cassidy did find bringing the item to the agenda at that particular meeting in the midst of the Morrison Ranch complaints was an instance of poor judgment.
Torgeson’s second complaint, which he distributed to multiple media outlets, was that Peterson wrongly disallowed him from speaking on a consent agenda item on a town settlement with a sign contractor. Cassidy found that Peterson was implicitly following attorney’s advice that public comment was not allowed on consent agenda items.
Peterson took responsibility for her actions, and in a social media statement after the report’s release, she pledged to do better.
“As I always do, I will look for ways to improve as a leader, a public servant and a human being,” she wrote. “Where I can exercise better judgment, I will. And where I can do better representing Gilbert’s many stakeholders, I will. I will do everything in my power to improve every day. You have my commitment to that.”