By Joshua Bowling |Arizona Republic
It’s a point of pride when leaders say Gilbert has a small-town feel. When it comes to politics, they may be on to something.
Once a sleepy agricultural suburb some 20 miles southeast of Phoenix, Gilbert has grown into an increasingly affluent town of more than 273,000. With its trendy development, upscale amenities and happening nightlife, it has all the trappings of a growing city in a bustling metro area. Mayor Brigette Peterson for years has referred to it as “the size of a city with the heart of a town.”
Indeed, small-town politics have taken center stage over much of the past two years.
There’s been no shortage of public infighting among elected leaders and Town Council candidates. Leaders have exchanged verbal blows, coarse language (a candidate publicly said of the Town Council “I hope someone up here finally grows a pair”) and a council minority has repeatedly taken hard-line stances on seemingly noncontroversial issues.
Discussions on local issues — such as public safety funding, public transit and bicycling — quickly gave way to ideological talking points on the national deficit, “Build Back Bankruptcy dollars” and “social engineering” that could “force people out of their vehicles.”
Some say this kind of tension has ebbed and flowed over the years. Some blame it on “a tremendous void of leadership,” or more broadly on the seemingly inescapable malaise and existential dread of the past two years. Some call it dysfunction.
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Whatever the cause, there are visible fractures.
Peterson called for unity among her colleagues last year after a months-long ethics probe wrapped up.
“At this time the residents, council members, town employees and I need to put this vitriol aside and go back to working together,” she said at the time.
That apparently didn’t do the trick.
In the eight months since, there has been visible tension on the Town Council. One recent meeting erupted in a verbal brawl between Peterson and Councilmember Laurin Hendrix, just as the town’s livestream crashed. Town employees said footage of the scrape was lost forever.
“It’s a sad state of things,” said Lynne King Smith, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2020. “Frankly, I’ve stopped watching and stopped attending the meetings because it’s so disheartening.”
‘Why show up? We know it’s a 5-2 vote’
Brigette Peterson, with husband Mark Peterson, takes her oath of office as mayor of Gilbert on Jan. 12, 2021.
Two council members routinely join forces on conservative issues.
It’s common for Vice Mayor Aimee Yentes and Hendrix to be the only “no” votes on a given issue.
Both their seats are up for grabs in the Aug. 2 election, and neither is seeking re-election.
Yentes at a March meeting took issue with a proposal to accept a nearly $550,000 federal grant that would help fund the town’s public safety. If Gilbert accepted the money, Yentes said, it would be sending the message that the town is fine with “out of control” federal spending.
“We could argue that the overheating of this economy is directly an effect of all this federal spending,” Yentes said at the March meeting. “I simply don’t want Gilbert to be a part of the problem …. No one drop believes they are the fault of the flood.”
Councilmember Scott September, who is seeking reelection, asked if the funds from the grant could instead be “applied towards our ridiculous national debt.” Unlike Yentes and Hendrix, though, he voted to accept the grant.
At that meeting, six of the 10 votes passed 5-2, with Yentes and Hendrix dissenting. The rest were unanimous.
To Yentes, she has an opportunity to stand up to political “groupthink.”
“Under the previous mayors, culturally that was the drumbeat: it’s one team, we’re Team Gilbert,” she said. “I’m not there to represent the town, I’m there to represent the constituent. There is a groupthink almost — if you’re going to be part of the team, we dress the same, we think the same.”
Councilmember Scott Anderson, who voted to accept the grant, said that isn’t a new issue in Gilbert. Elected officials like Yentes have a “different view” on spending federal money, he said.
“We see where you’re coming from; we understand about the difficulty of accepting federal funds,” he said. “But if Gilbert does not use these funds to benefit our community, they don’t go back to Washington. They go back to another community.”
Lynne King Smith
But for some, like former mayoral candidate King Smith, the consistency of 5-2 votes alone can be troubling.
“Why show up? We know it’s a 5-2 vote,” King Smith said. “I would really love to see some more independent thinking.”
Some of the disagreements have occurred outside of public view.
In a 2021 email, Hendrix took issue with part of a proclamation on Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It included language that decried homophobia and transphobia.
“How does homophobia or any of the other phobias perpetuate domestic violence?” Hendrix wrote in an email to two council members and the town manager. “This appears to be an effort to include political rhetoric in a town proclamation. I asked about changing it but was advised that council members did not have input to such matters. I gather that this is solely under the purview of a Mayor. It’s odd that the entire council has to waste their time to listen to a press release by the Mayor.”
One brawl after another
Ideological disagreements aside, the politics in Gilbert for much of the past year have often resembled a battle royale. It’s been one thing after another.
A months-long ethics investigation centered on the mayor. Then came a fiery falling-out over the town’s revamped logo. A violation of Arizona’s Open Meeting Law. A slap on the wrist from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.
All that is to say nothing of the literal, physical brawls that broke out in 2020 as a protest and counterprotest turned violent.
Some of these sparring matches started off behind closed doors. But one by one, they boiled over into public view.
“In general, there’s been agitation,” said Anderson, who started as a town employee in 1988 and pioneered the Gilbert Riparian Preserve before running for Town Council. “It’s an election year, and there are candidates that are very interested in making sure those fires continue to burn. They really mean nothing to the well being of the town. They’re just issues that cause people to get stirred up.”
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The months-long ethics probe
Peterson had served as a council member for about five years before her election as mayor. In 2021, a few months after she was sworn in, the ethics complaints started rolling in.
The complaints alleged she was showing favor to an influential developer. Residents emailed Peterson with their concerns about a proposal to rezone a piece of land in the Morrison Ranch master-planned community. Peterson promptly passed those emails along to developer Howard Morrison, who donated to and helped run her campaign, and included notes updating him on the opposition.
Angry residents created signs with slogans like “Quid Pro Peterson.”
Peterson dismissed the complaints as “political shenanigans.”
An outside investigation concluded she “exercised poor judgment” but didn’t breach any of the town’s ethics requirements.
The Town Council voted not to discipline her. But that didn’t save her from a verbal lashing.
Hendrix, who in 2020 sued the town so he could be seated on the Town Council immediately after winning the election, spoke uninterrupted for 38 minutes about his opinions on the ethics probe.
Asked whether displays like that could increase tension on the Town Council, said he said he felt it was necessary to hold Peterson accountable.
“There doesn’t seem to be an appetite to hold anybody accountable on the council,” he told The Arizona Republic. “This kind of behavior seems to be acceptable to this body.”
The issue that just won’t go away: Gilbert’s logo
Gilbert’s logo, approved in late 2020 to coincide with the town’s 100th anniversary.
It doesn’t ease congestion, enhance public safety or balance the budget, but Gilbert’s logo has been the talk of America’s largest town for a while now.
It’s made up of three shapes meant to represent agricultural fields overlapping to make an abstract G, all in the colors inspired by an Arizona sunset. Leaders adopted it in 2020 to coincide with the town’s 100th anniversary.
Then the fireworks started.
It was the subject of civic debate, but behind closed doors the fallout was contributing to what one employee called a “toxic work environment,” records show.
Peterson allegedly said she had “disdain” for the logo and discriminated against an employee in the Office of Digital Government, which created the logo, according to the ethics investigation. The department also handles “implementation of social media,” according to the town’s website.
Weeks after the ethics investigation concluded, finding Peterson did not violate the town’s ethics rules, Peterson called for an investigation into the town because of its social media posts.
Her call for a probe came on her own letterhead with an unofficial Gilbert logo, featuring a bald eagle, an American flag and the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
When Gilbert Mayor Brigette Peterson called for an investigation into the town, she used an unofficial Gilbert logo.
The move came after conservative group Judicial Watch accused the town’s social media accounts of furthering “the Marxist agenda … as well as Democrat Party elected officials.”
Its evidence: a handful of town social media posts thanking protesters for being peaceful and a town Instagram post that hopped on a viral trend, superimposing U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders with his warm jacket and fuzzy mittens in downtown Gilbert.
At Peterson’s first in-person State of the Town event months later, Peterson’s podium featured the same logo.
At Gilbert Mayor Brigette Peterson’s first in-person State of the Town event in March, her podium featured the same Gilbert logo from her previous call for an investigation.
Peterson has previously told The Republic she wanted to “move on” from the logo issue, too. But it just keeps coming back.
Last May, Peterson saw it on the newly constructed $85 million public training safety facility off Power and Pecos roads. It’s huge, easily visible to commuters passing between Mesa and Gilbert on Power Road.
“I wonder what your thoughts are on the spending of funds for this on the PTSF? Do you think this is an appropriate use of Town funds?” Peterson wrote to the rest of the Town Council. “I know I was told to ‘Move on’ and ‘Get over it’ but there are things happening with this logo that are not appropriate and I’m appalled. The previous logo was never used in these capacities and I wonder if you were informed this would be happening with this one!”
The next morning, Anderson hit “reply all.”
Discipline from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office
“I hope we can just move on,” Anderson’s response to Peterson and the rest of the Town Council concluded.
Both Peterson and Anderson violated Arizona’s Open Meeting Law, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office found.
State law requires members of a public body, such as a Town Council or school board, must conduct their meetings in public and publish an agenda beforehand. Sending an email to a quorum of the Town Council that either proposes legal action or discusses something they are likely to vote on is a clear violation of the law, a letter from the Attorney General’s Office says.
The letter also said town leaders had to publicly share its contents at a Town Council meeting. Peterson did, but the town’s livestream of the meeting crashed while she was in the middle of it.
It remained down while Peterson and Hendrix also got into a heated argument.
A town spokesperson told The Republic the next morning that Gilbert IT officials could not recover any of the footage.
“I don’t want to start some kind of conspiracy theory, but it certainly seems peculiar,” Hendirx said. “I bet the mayor’s very appreciative of that loss.”
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Will new faces cool the political temperature?
Whether new faces cool the political temperature in Gilbert remains to be seen.
Anderson said it “depends on who’s elected.”
Some candidates have been more cantankerous than others.
Four of the seven Town Council seats are up for grabs. Incumbent councilmembers Yung Koprowski and Scott September are seeking re-election, but Yentes and Hendrix are not, meaning at least two new faces will join the council.
Candidate Jim Torgeson, a local business owner, recently sued the town and at a public meeting told the Town Council to grow “a pair.” Town leaders publicly said there’s no place for that kind of language.
“On the dais, I can promise that I would not use come of the colorful metaphors that have been used against (Peterson),” he said. “As a citizen, sometimes you have to yell to be heard. As a sitting official, your voice can be heard in a more pleasant way.”
Candidate Bobbi Buchli in an email told The Arizona Republic “the infighting must stop.”
“It is an embarrassment to the town much less those involved,” she said. “I would not be opposed to having a consultant come in and review how the issues of the town and council are being handled together and why this is happening.”
When Gilbert business owner Lynne King Smith ran for the mayor’s seat in 2020, one of her key gripes was the town’s leadership.
It wasn’t strong enough during the early, uneasy days of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said at the time. It bothered her that the Town Council took its usual summer hiatus in July 2020, while the pandemic raged.
Even now, she said the Town Council seems to have “a lack of good leadership,” calling out the town’s #GilbertKindness campaign which promotes doing good deeds in the community.
“Does our Gilbert kindness extend to everyone?” she said. “If I can be frank, it’s about leadership and experience in how to navigate through some of those difficult meetings. Wade through some of the things without getting personal or offended or upset.”
Anderson attributes the tension to a bit of everything — a turbulent economy, the fatigue of a years-long pandemic, the growing pains of Gilbert nearing buildout.
Maybe Gilbert isn’t that sleepy farm town anymore. As it’s grown, the political winds have shifted.
Some Gilbert politicians, like former Town Councilmember-turned County Assessor Eddie Cook, have gone on to higher office. Others in Gilbert have found themselves on the national stage, like Rep. Andy Biggs, whose alleged involvement with the Jan. 6 insurrection has come under increasing scrutiny.
When the infighting on the Town Council has reached its worst, Anderson has been a calm, steady voice, urging everyone to “move on” and focus on what’s best for Gilbert residents.
“It kind of has gone in cycles,” he said. “I think the last couple years have been especially tense.”