Gilbert Mayor Brigette Peterson ended her reelection campaign on Thursday.
Peterson’s sudden decision comes amid several months of community grief and outrage over the “Gilbert Goons”: the violent teen group that had reportedly plagued the community for several years leading up to the October murder of 16-year-old Preston Lord. The youth’s death, and the Gilbert Goons’ alleged involvement, went viral across multiple social media platforms and attracted national media coverage.
The mayor said in a statement that her desire to spend time with family outweighed her intent on seeking another term in office, among other, “many reasons” to which she alluded but didn’t elaborate.
“Now a new chapter has begun, almost 15 months ago my grandson was born; life is short and I am choosing to focus my energy on my family and so as of now I’m ending my reelection campaign,” said Peterson.
According to an email obtained by The Arizona Republic, Peterson informed the town’s executive leadership about her intent to drop her campaign within an hour of when the media was anticipated to announce it. Peterson promised to not resign, despite community advocates’ demands.
“I promise you, I will not be resigning before the end of my term,” said Peterson. “I will not put this team and the current council through that process and I will fulfill my obligation.”
Peterson also elaborated to town leadership that she hadn’t seen her grandson often, though he lived close by.
“My grandson is about to turn 15 months old and I realized I haven’t seen him 15 times and he only lives in the west valley,” said Peterson.
Peterson’s announcement came shortly after Vice Mayor Scott Anderson launched his candidacy against her, and less than two days after another contentious town council meeting, in which Peterson again faced much public comment critical of her handling of the Gilbert Goons, as well as new criticisms over her permissiveness of the town’s Office of Digital Government.
“We desperately need some change in Gilbert,” said Anderson. “I view myself more as a statesman, a leader.”
In addition to Anderson, Peterson had another opponent seeking to unseat her: former deputy county attorney Shane Krauser.
In response to Peterson’s sudden exit, Krauser made a promise of more public transparency through recurring town halls.
“Our government officials have hidden for too long and, thus, we’ve had a lack of real accountability,” said Krauser. “New leadership is coming. A new level of accountability is on the horizon. Our best days are ahead.”
Since taking office in 2021, Peterson’s tenure has been fraught with public controversy: including free speech lawsuits and no less than a dozen ethics violation complaints.
Big Brother is alive and well in one Arizona town, where an entire department of city employees is paid to monitor the online speech of employees and elected officials — as well as control all government communications online — to enforce conformity with a progressive political agenda.
Though it may sound like a fictional invention of Orwellian fashion, there’s a real place in Arizona where that occurs. It’s an arrangement unlike any other in the state and, by all indicators, the first of its kind in the nation. It’s the Office of Digital Government (ODG) in the town of Gilbert.
At the helm is Dana Berchman, chief digital officer. For over a decade, Berchman has overseen an average of 10-12 employees who ensure that the 30 official government accounts—along with personal online postings of government-affiliated individuals—fall in line with a liberal political outlook: Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+ ideologies, and the like.
For their work, ODG employees are amply compensated. Their annual salaries range from over $82,000 to nearly $138,000; only two of the employees make slightly under that range, earning well over $60,000. Berchman receives the highest salary by far: over $200,800 annually.
There were also two employees that left ODG within the 2023 fiscal year: their salaries amounted to about $188,300. Including those positions, all ODG salaries amount to over $1.15 million.
Public records revealed that under Berchman, ODG contacts various departmental leadership about employees’ online speech if it runs counter to progressive ideals or appears to be critical of their department. Leadership is then expected to confront employees about their speech.
Over the last few years of marked social political upheaval due to George Floyd’s death, the 2020 election, and the COVID-19 pandemic, ODG permitted public displays of support for issues like Black Lives Matter (BLM), vaccines, and mask-wearing, but sought out discipline for those whose speech was or appeared to be the least bit critical of those stances — or ODG.
Following George Floyd’s death, ODG led a unified response across all Gilbert departments to show solidarity with BLM: “blackout” posts, a video statement from the mayor, and pictures of first responders bending the knee to BLM protesters.
One former employee that we spoke with on the condition of anonymity said that they left their job in part due to ODG’s control over the other departments.
“When I worked there, they were pushing the chiefs of police and fire to be more liberal. Then there’s those emails about how excited they were about getting the chief to kneel to BLM,” said the former employee.
That former employee added that anything a department wanted to put out on social media had to receive ODG’s complete approval.
“It was difficult to get anything accomplished,” said the former employee. “Everything was so tightly managed. People on the ground there were upset because they couldn’t do anything.”
That could explain the delay in communications on the arguably biggest development to hit Gilbert in decades, one that has now made national headlines: the Gilbert Goons.
Independent investigative efforts by reporters indicated that similar teen-involved assaults in the East Valley go back as early as December 2022; Gilbert police initially claimed that they only discovered a pattern and the term “Gilbert Goons” last month, but later noted that victims referenced their assailants’ association with the violent group.
Other issues have sparked more immediate attention from Gilbert leadership. Public records revealed that departmental leadership would entertain ODG’s complaints about certain employees’ online speech to which they objected, such as a show of support for first responders.
In an August 2020 email obtained through public records, Berchman notified Gilbert Fire Department (GFD) leadership that one of their fire trucks drove by and turned on sirens to support Back the Blue protesters.
The implication was that GFD leadership would instruct its employees to not engage in similar behavior in the future, as they have regarding the displays of thin blue line flags symbolizing support for police. Gilbert fire and police leadership instructed personnel to not fly those flags due to their controversial message related to George Floyd’s death and the BLM riots.
Several days after Berchman’s complaint, Police Chief Michael Soelberg and then-Fire Chief Jim Jobusch issued a joint email and video to their employees directing them to not “choose sides” publicly concerning Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter protests.
“Given the intensity of the debate and strong personal feelings some have about these gatherings, [we] thought it would be prudent to put out a consistent message to the members of both of our departments,” read a joint email notifying personnel of the video.
“We need to be aware not to choose sides and to not leave the perception that we’re choosing sides during large gatherings,” said Jobusch in the video.
Records also revealed that ODG would spend business hours documenting the nitty gritty of Gilbert employees’ social media activity, even down to when they “liked” posts critical of ODG. In another 2020 incident, ODG issued a post to the town’s Twitter (now X) page celebrating itself for winning an award. In an internal messaging group between team members, ODG discussed one employee who “liked” another local’s comment criticizing ODG as a “bloated team of Insta posters” funded by taxpayers.
“Yeah [this individual] has had a few bad tweets and likes the past 24 hours,” one ODG employee wrote in a group message.
The same day of the Jan. 6 breach at the Capitol, Berchman sent an internal group message tasking her employees with hunting down and tracking the personal social media posts of one town employee critical of them. In that same conversation, Berchman alluded that she maintained a dossier of other town employees’ social media posts.
“Do you all have a folder or compilation of all of [this employee’s] tweets? Or posts?” asked Berchman. “I just looked in my social media files and I had most of these [posts other ODG members sent]. It makes me sick to look at these [posts] especially TODAY.”
Yet, Berchman’s personal social media often delves into the political. Her posts over the years openly declared her support of Democratic candidates and progressive issues such as abortion, gun control, and same-sex marriage.
“A bunch of old white guys? Not interested,” wrote Berchman, in response to former President Trump’s potential cabinet selections.
“Today I feel hope, joy, and relief. To those who thought it couldn’t be that bad — it was worse than I ever imagined,” said Berchman on President Joe Biden’s inauguration day. “Watching the past four years and particularly the last one and explaining to my children the things they’ve seen and heard. Never again.”
“Every single word of this – especially ‘coming to grips with the reality that millions voted for a man so obviously willing to burn our democracy down for his own ego,’” said Berchman.
“Oh no,” said Berchman, in response to a 2016 report calling Maricopa County the “Trumpiest county” in the country.
Berchman reposted controversial tweets from then-presidential candidate Joe Biden urging people to vote out then-President Donald Trump, then a post from Biden announcing a mask mandate. Berchman also shared a post blaming parents for school shutdowns over COVID-19 case spikes.
Berchman was behind the new town logo that stoked controversy last year, with many left dissatisfied with the end product of a two-year process. Both Mayor Brigette Peterson and council noted they were kept out of the process for developing the logo, with Peterson receiving resistance from town manager Patrick Banger: a common pattern for ODG.
Public records revealed that those town employees who criticized the logo were the subject of ODG documentation and internal messaging.
This appeared to be a frequent exercise for Berchman and her ODG members, though relatively new for the department.
ODG didn’t exist until 2012, when Banger came up with the idea for the department: the first of its kind in the nation. Banger credited former Democratic New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his media empire for coming up with the idea. The year before, Bloomberg hired the nation’s first chief digital officer, Rachel Haot, and together they crafted the nation’s first digital roadmap.
“One of the things that I’d been doing for quite some time is following what Mayor Bloomberg was doing in New York,” said Banger in an early episode of the town’s now-defunct podcast, Government Gone Digital.
Haot’s oversight of online governmental communications resembled the centralized approach that ODG has undertaken. Haot identified her team as the authority on what was published online across city departments, in one interview using Hurricane Sandy as an example.
“24/7 we were working to ensure that all of those channels were working in lockstep,” said Haot. “Say the public housing agency had a new update they needed to get out to their constituents — we had a streamlined process to make sure the information was accurate and could get out there as soon as possible.”
Bloomberg is the liberal billionaire behind the nonprofit Bloomberg Philanthropies. What Works Cities (WWC) is a project of the nonprofit; Gilbert joined them in 2017. WWC’s Results for America awarded ODG in 2020 for public communications that facilitated community trust during COVID-19. Then-WWC Executive Director Simone Brody remarked that ODG exemplified the ideal approach for government communications.
“This recognition honors her life by celebrating cities like Gilbert that exemplify how governments and residents can collaborate to build a better future for us all.”
The following year, 2021, Brody became the senior advisor of Biden’s American Rescue Plan Implementation Team. The primary focus of the team was to ensure the trillions in federal relief funds were issued equitably, not equally.
Banger hired Berchman, a Gilbert native, in 2012. Like his inspiration, Berchman launched her career in New York, where she interned for Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign before working for MTV and then MSNBC.
By 2017, ODG had gained significant control over which departments could have social media platforms and what they could share. In the town’s podcast, Berchman explained that ODG had centralized oversight but would give “social media ambassadors” the ability to post and share.
“We don’t just give every [department] a Facebook account because they want one. Who’s going to run it? What are you going to put there? Are you going to have someone monitor it 24/7?” said Berchman.
It wasn’t until 2019 that ODG revoked that limited autonomy and fully took over communications for every department. Berchman discussed the plan in the town’s podcast, in an episode that described the approach as “building the city of the future.”
“We are going to have a truly centralized communications team, we’re going to have people embedded in the other departments: parks and recreation, police, and fire, which is what’s really unique about this, I think, and economic development,” said Berchman. “It is important for us to be streamlined, all on message together, all on brand.”
That year, for the first time, Gilbert’s social media pages issued a post celebrating Pride Month.
Public records indicate that 2019 was also the year that ODG began ramping up oversight of employee’s personal social media content.
Kelsey Perry — then ODG’s community engagement coordinator, now a public information officer — sent an internal message that August flagging the personal Instagram story of a town employee that “could be deemed culturally insensitive.” The video was passed on from ODG leadership to that employee’s superiors.
In a recent interview, Berchman alluded to her limiting input to those who agree with her perspective, calling those who have grievances “pitchfork people” that didn’t qualify as the average Gilbert resident.
“Let other people come in, invite them in and let them tell you what they think about what you’re doing,” said Berchman. “Not people that show up at council meetings or, I say, the pitchfork people that have a grievance, but the average person who’s busy living their lives.”
Last Wednesday, the town of Gilbert apologized for creating a document ranking residents based on their support or opposition of a road widening project.
Maricopa County island resident Rich Robertson presented the document to the Gilbert Town Council during last week’s meeting item discussing the project. The document listed the affected homeowners, their parcel, their address, the landowners’ stance on the project, and a “vocal level” of 1-4. A rating of “1” indicated the resident was among the most vocal in opposition, while a rating of “4” indicated that the resident was reasonable.
“The town of Gilbert has created, effectively, an enemies list,” said Robertson. “Why are we as residents — who are trying to exercise our rights — being ranked by your staff on how compliant we are with you? This is, I suspect, not how the council really wants its residents to be treated. I think it’s outrageous.”
The city issued an apology statement last Wednesday from Public Works Director Jessica Marlow.
Marlow apologized for using the “vocal level” category, and said that the intent wasn’t to label anyone. She explained that the intent was to prepare city leaders for meetings with affected homeowners last October. Marlow admitted that the document should’ve been named differently, in hindsight.
“It was meant to help staff better understand how to address concerns ahead of the meetings,” wrote Marlow.
Awareness of the issue was made possible due to three freshman council members who placed the item on last week’s agenda: Jim Torgeson, Chuck Bongiovanni, and Bobbi Buchli. The trio and Mayor Brigette Peterson vocalized their dismay over the document. The mayor noted that she wasn’t aware of the document before the meeting, and apologized.
“I don’t know anything about it, and I am just appalled that something like that might be going around,” stated Peterson. “I do believe that you don’t deserve any of that. I apologize for that.”
Robertson, who was rated a “2,” rejected the city’s claim that the classification wasn’t intended as a list of enemies.
“I think that’s what leads to those kinds of characterizations,” said Robertson. “It certainly wasn’t inadvertent. It was clear that it (the document) was intended to identify the people who were problems and to steel themselves against those people.”
Robertson speculated that he received the “2” ranking due to writing letters frequently to the council.
The project that inspired so much controversy about residents intended to widen Ocotillo Road into a 110-foot right-of-way. The expansion would require several new bridges to span a section of missing roadway. It was included in the FY2023-2032 Capital Improvement Plan, with funds from 2022 General Obligation (Transportation) Bonds.
Watch the discussion of the “vocal level” controversy below:
Questions have been raised about a private law firm’s handling of a campaign finance violation investigation involving the Town of Gilbert’s recent mayoral race, while others are asking why the law firm was involved in the first place.
Last week an attorney with Fitzgibbons Law Offices reported to Gilbert Town Attorney Chris Payne that legal sufficiency does not exist to establish a violation of state election law with respect to dozens of campaign-related signs, despite a finding by the Phoenix City Clerk earlier this year of “reasonable cause” to believe a campaign finance violation occurred.
The law firm’s decision appears to have been made without reviewing bank records of the parties involved nor speaking to additional witnesses, a fact not sitting well with many in Gilbert and Maricopa County who support election integrity.
On Nov. 11, 2020, the Town of Gilbert received a complaint related to dozens of signs put up around town that were critical of Matt Nielsen, who lost to former city councilwoman Brigette Peterson in a mayoral runoff race.
Based on citizens’ statements and a private investigator’s report, none of the signs included “paid for by” or “authorized by” verbiage. Nielsen filed a campaign violation complaint alleging the Public Integrity Alliance Committee, headed by Tyler Montague, was involved with the anti-Nielsen signs. Public records show the committee was actively involved in supporting Peterson’s campaign.
The City of Phoenix handled the initial phase of the violation review to avoid the conflict of interest of having Gilbert town staff involved. In February, the Phoenix City Clerk announced there was “reasonable cause” to believe a campaign finance violation was committed in connection to the signs that Montague admitted paying for in cash and picking up at a print shop.
The second phase of the campaign finance complaint would normally have involved Town Attorney Chris Payne reviewing the reasonable cause report from the City of Phoenix in order to determine which state law had been violated.
However, town officials once again declared a conflict because Payne and his staff work at the pleasure of the town’s mayor and council. Instead of asking the Phoenix City Attorney or the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to handle the second part of the investigation, town officials hired a private law firm to do the work; a law firm which needs to rely on Peterson’s approval for future business with the town.
During its investigation, attorneys for Fitzgibbons had access to a statement Montague provided the City of Phoenix in which he described seeing several of signs laying on the ground while driving by a polling place at the Gilbert Recreation Center on Nov. 3, Election Day.
According to Montague’s statement, he replaced four or five of the signs even though he did not originally place those signs. He also said he saw a woman remove the same signs he had just replaced and told her it was illegal to take down political signs without authorization.
The woman previously told a private investigator that the man told her she was committing a misdemeanor and she should not touch” his” signs. The man was identified as Montague through his license plate. He told the Phoenix clerk that his activities were not an operation of the Public Integrity Alliance Committee.
Once retained, a Fitzgibbons attorney issued a subpoena in March to the print shop where the anti-Nielsen signs were printed. In response, an invoice in Montague’s name was provided by the printer, who said Montague ordered and paid for the signs with $500 cash.
A subpoena was also issued to Montague seeking “all information related to the purchase of any signs pertaining to the 2020 election for the Mayor of the Town of Gilbert that reference Matt Nielsen. Such information shall include, but not be limited to, the name and contact information for any vendor that made such signs, purchase orders, receipts, wording included on the signs and any images of the signs.”
Montague replied again that the anti-Nielsen signs were not funded by himself or the Committee. He explained that the printer’s invoice ended up in Montague’s name only because he “volunteered to pick up those up for a friend who funded them. Public Integrity Alliance was not involved in any way.”
It should be noted that the invoice numbers for both Public Integrity Alliance’s sign purchases, as well as the order numbers for both purchases are sequential, indicating that the signs had been ordered at the same time and paid for at the same time.
In a July 6 report to Payne, Fitzgibbons attorney Tina Vannucci noted that ARS 16-925(A) states a “person that makes an expenditure for an advertisement or fund-raising solicitation, other than an individual, shall include [certain] disclosures in the advertisement or solicitation…”
Vannucci noted “there is not legal sufficiency” to establish that Montague acted in his capacity as President of the Committee, or on behalf of the Committee, or that the Committee purchased the signs at issue in the Complaint which were not properly labeled.” And because the statute specifically exempts individuals from the “paid for by” or “authorized by” language, if Montague was responsible for the signs at his own volition then he cannot be charged with the violation.
What is not mentioned in the Fitzgibbons report is whether Montague was asked who the “friend” was in the event that person was acting on behalf of a committee or other organization. In addition, there was no subpoena issued for bank records belonging to Montague and the Public Integrity Alliance Committee which may have revealed whether Montague received or requested reimbursement or petty cash for the anti-Nielsen signs.
The next meeting of the Gilbert town council has not been confirmed. It is unclear whether any formal action on the campaign complaint is necessary by the council, although the town will have to approve a bill at some point from Fitzgibbons for legal services.