By Corinne Murdock |
Gilbert Mayor Brigette Peterson faces two federal lawsuits for alleged free speech violations.
Peterson was served the lawsuits earlier this month, both of which were filed in the Arizona District Court.
One of the lawsuits, Handelsman v. Town of Gilbert, names Ryan Handelsman, Brandon Ryff, and Joanne Terry as the citizens whose First Amendment rights were allegedly violated. The other lawsuit names one of the plaintiffs only, Ryff v. Town of Gilbert.
In the initial complaint filed in Handelsman v. Town of Gilbert, the citizens allege that Peterson and town officials retaliated against them for their criticism. The citizens handed out and held up approximately 100 signs at the town’s Sept. 20 council meeting last year. Peterson ordered police to remove a sign held by one of the plaintiffs, Terry. Following that interaction, another plaintiff, Handelsman, advised the mayor during public comments that no statute, code, or law prohibited silent display of a sign. Fellow plaintiff Ryff then issued critical comments of the mayor during the public comments.
Following those events, the three plaintiffs decided to hold their signs up again. Peterson had police remove the three plaintiffs from the meeting room.
“There was no disruption caused by Plaintiffs by silently hold[ing] their signs,” read the lawsuit. “It was the Mayor who created an actual disruption along with a constitutional violation, overreacting to something she could have simply ignored and was prohibited from squelching by the United States Constitution.”
After that incident, a citizen filed an ethics complaint against the mayor. The complaint alleged that Peterson violated policy provisions ensuring the impartial, fair, and respectful treatment of all citizens, as well as ensuring the loyalty to Gilbert citizens over personal considerations.
The final ethics report defended the mayor’s actions. It determined that Peterson was right in her actions in order to uphold decorum.
In response, the three plaintiffs alleged that the ethics investigation wrongly neglected to interview them; they alleged that the total defense provided by the final ethics report amounted to retaliation. In remarks to the media, Peterson accused the three plaintiffs of harassment and bullying. At least one of the plaintiffs, Ryff, alleged that these false public accusations by the mayor caused his business to suffer.
The three plaintiffs compared the mayor’s response to their sign-holding with her response during a November town council meeting last year, in which a disgruntled citizen forced the council into emergency recess and continued to disrupt even after the recess with her continued shouting.
There have been at least nine ethics complaints against Peterson since she became mayor in 2021. Eight of the nine were cleared; Peterson was found to have violated open records law as a result of one of the complaints. Concerning five of those complaints, outside investigation concluded that Peterson hadn’t violated the ethics code but did “exercise poor judgment” in some instances.
Ryff and Handelsman were behind several of the other past complaints. The pair filed complaints about the mayor’s communication and conduct concerning an apartment project in Morrison Ranch.