Gilbert Mayor Brigette Peterson said Oct. 19 she plans to call for an investigation into whether town staff members targeted employees for their political beliefs and used town resources to further their personal political agendas.

Peterson released a statement Oct. 19 condemning any such activity and requesting town council to join her in asking for an outside investigation into the allegations. Council next meets at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 19.

“Let me be clear: Our town government must conduct itself in a manner that represents all of Gilbert’s residents, without regard to their personal politics,” Peterson said in the statement. “Our employees must also do their jobs without allowing their personal agenda to pervade the workplace. If this is not the case, it must be corrected—immediately.”

Peterson, through her aide Chris Kelly, said she planned to address the situation in the period for her comments at the end of the council meeting.

A statement from the town manager’s office indicated it requested last week an independent investigation pertaining to documents from a Freedom of Information Act request.

Judicial Watch's FOIA request

Judicial Watch, a group that describes itself as a political watchdog and uses extensive FOIA requests in its efforts, made a large FOIA request of Gilbert officials on Aug. 2. The request was addressed to Town Manager Patrick Banger.

The request was made for town documents between Jan. 1, 2019, and Aug. 2, 2021, concerning employee interaction with the press/news outlets, posting of political views on social media, posting support for law enforcement on social media and violation of Gilbert social media posting policies.

It further asked for documents and communications from specific employees in the town manager’s office; human resources; the offices of the police and fire chiefs; and the digital government team, which runs the town’s social media accounts.

The request included examples of political opinions from Gilbert Chief Digital Officer Dana Mason Berchman and from town accounts. The request from Mark Spencer, Judicial Watch’s Southwest projects coordinator, characterized the posts as “promoting the political Marxist agenda of Black Lives Matter ... as well as Democrat Party elected officials.”

Peterson said neither she nor council members knew of the Judicial Watch request until Oct. 4, when she asked about it after someone from Judicial Watch approached her about the request. Peterson said she and council should have been notified immediately about such a request from a high-profile national organization and “the failure to do so is unacceptable.”

The statement from the town manager’s office indicated the town regularly responds to records requests in coordination with the town clerk and town attorney offices in a timely manner, whether the requestor is a citizen, a media outlet or an organization.

“Our goal is always to provide transparency, and day-to-day, our goal is to impartially carry out the policy directives set by the mayor and council,” the statement said. “We are grateful for our council’s continued efforts to foster an environment and community we are all proud to call home.”

The town uses justFOIA, a cloud-based platform, to process FOIA requests through the town clerk’s office.

Organizational values

In her statement, Peterson also noted Judicial Watch sought communications about staff enacting “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” policies, which Peterson said did not require council approval but were not in line with council policies and philosophies.

In its statement, the town manager’s office said the town has long worked to be a welcoming and inclusive community.

“One of the four organizational values adopted by the town in early 2019—that of kindness—particularly exemplifies this,” the statement said. “It reads: ‘We believe in the inherent worth of all people. We are inclusive and spread Gilbert kindness in our words and actions. We promote emotionally intelligent leaders who put people and relationships before processes and tools. We serve each other and the community with respect and civility at all times. We believe the ability to connect and help is just as important as talent and knowledge.’”

The statement also noted the town identified diversity, equity and inclusion as a “Wildly Important Goal” toward building a prosperous community in early 2020 as part of its annual goal-setting process and included language related to that in its budget documents for fiscal years 2020-21 and 2021-22.

In the days after the May 2020 death of George Floyd, a Black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis, then-Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels spoke about the need for community leaders and members to listen to the voices rising in protest across the nation. That evolved into Daniels launching the “Listen. Learn. Act. Amplify.” initiative. The plan started with the creation of Gilbert’s “Listening Spaces,” a series of forums that asked the community to share their stories, experiences, and feedback with police officers, town leadership and Gilbert school districts.

At that time, Peterson had resigned from council to run for mayor as Daniels had announced she would not seek re-election. Peterson was elected in November and began her term in January.

Daniels resigned as mayor in August 2020 to pursue other opportunities but said in a phone interview such efforts were important to her.

“My whole thing was that everyone in the community should be heard, seen and valued,” Daniels said. “I must have said that 5,000 times. In my time as mayor, I grew to feel there was a segment of our population that was not being listened to like others were.”

Daniels, who is now the CEO of public affairs firm Horizon Strategies, said she has disconnected from what is happening in town administration but said it would be important that town employees also feel heard, seen and valued.

Other targets

Another target of the Judicial Watch requests was town documents showing town costs and expenses associated with the town’s participation in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative run by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Daniels was a member of the initiative’s third class in 2019.

Daniels said she took the classes to heart in her leadership of the town but said the case studies involved were nonpartisan. As an example, she cited customer service as done by a hotel chain in India.

Among the other requests, Judicial Watch asked for human resources documents concerning employee hiring and promotion. The organization also asked for documents recommending "The 1619 Project," "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," systemic racism, social injustice, unconscious bias, “equity and inclusivity,” and Blue Lives Matter.

According to the town attorney’s office, town code does not provide for an elected official to launch an investigation.