By Corinne Murdock |
For over an hour on Tuesday, Gilbert residents demanded justice for free speech violations committed by their town’s Office of Digital Government (ODG).
Most public comment during Tuesday’s town council meeting consisted of community members’ resounding call to end ODG and reappropriate the funds, citing the AZ Free News investigative report on the department. As we reported last week, records revealed that ODG monitored the online speech of employees and elected officials to ensure conformity with a progressive political agenda.
Several residents also related the report on ODG to their discontent with ongoing investigations into the “Gilbert Goons,” a violent group of teens and young adults behind reported and confirmed assaults on youths in Gilbert and the surrounding areas.
One 16-year resident, Carol Cherry, said that Gilbert was “hardly recognizable” and lacking common sense amid plaguing issues like the Gilbert Goons and ODG. Cherry called for the replacement of ODG with a more clearly defined and transparent communications department, arguing that paying a department to “spy” on employee speech shouldn’t be a government priority.
“Our children are being threatened by vicious beatings and even death by the infamous Gilbert Goons, and now we find out that we have another group of goons threatening segments of our community: that would be the Office of Digital Government,” said Cherry. “These dozen or so ‘thought police’ order supervisors to confront any employee who dares speak against the progressive narrative, even if that speech is on a personal social media account.”
Mayoral candidate Shane Krauser described the town government’s permissiveness of ODG as irresponsible. He took issue with the decision-making power and authority of unelected officials, referencing Town Manager Patrick Banger specifically. Krauser also criticized the amount of communication on the Gilbert Goons as too little.
“What we’re looking for here is just competent leadership, and maybe more than that, we’re looking for the individuals who were actually elected to run the government,” said Krauser. “These things are irresponsible from the town government’s perspective, and they’re fundamentally illegal, if they are true.”
Krauser added that $1.1 million was far too great an amount to pay ODG, especially considering the operations and apparent mission of the department. ODG employee salaries amounted to over $1.1 million prior to the departure of two employees within the last fiscal year. The head of ODG, Dana Berchman, made over $200,800.
“Dana Berchman has her own political philosophy that is being advanced through a platform that’s funded by the taxpayers of Gilbert,” said Krauser. “It’s a fundamental violation of the Constitution, it’s a fundamental violation of the rule of law.”
Concerning the cost of ODG, Gilbert’s former mayor, Steve Berman, suggested that the town disband the department and use the funds to pay the salaries of 15 new police officers capable of cracking down on teen violence like that of the Gilbert Goons.
Berman said it was well within the council’s authority to dissolve ODG, should at least four councilmembers direct the town manager to do so.
“What gives this department the right to spy on anybody’s Facebook account and then report their results to the town manager?” asked Berman. “I would like to see you disband the department, and take the money that’s being paid now, and we can fund the salaries of 15 new police officers for Gilbert. I think people would rather spend the money on more cops than on a secret police that’s spying on the employees.”
Scott Runde, chair of the Gilbert Town Council Watch Group for legislative district 14, similarly expressed a desire to end ODG and redirect the funds to something else, like a water treatment plant.
Councilman Jim Torgeson proposed the council add an agenda item to review the mission, purpose, and future existence of ODG. It didn’t appear that any other councilmembers backed the proposal.
Mayor Brigette Peterson asked Town Manager Patrick Banger — who started ODG under inspiration from former Democratic New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — to look into the ODG.
Police Chief Michael Soelberg addressed concerns from the residents concerning the Gilbert Goons and teen violence in the town and surrounding communities. Soelberg promised that more arrests would be forthcoming. He emphasized that, in spite of all that had happened, Gilbert remains a safe community.
“Gilbert is one of the safest cities in the country,” said Soelberg.