An order last month by Gilbert Mayor Brigette Peterson for town police officers to remove three people from a council meeting has resulted in a notice of claim being served against town officials for First Amendment violations.
A notice of claim is required under Arizona law before a party can initiate a lawsuit against a public entity. On Thursday, such a notice was served on the Gilbert mayor and council members on behalf of Ryan Handelsman, Dr. Brandon Ryff, and Joanne Terry, who contend they were forced out of Sept. 20 town council meeting for engaging in constitutionally protected speech.
According to attorney Tim La Sota, his three clients attended the meeting during which dozens of protest signs were taken into the council chambers. Some of the signs were printed with the phrase “Stop Lying” while others read “Don’t Mesa My Gilbert.”
Peterson interrupted the meeting at one point and ordered a Gilbert police officer to remove a 6-inch by 24-inch “Stop Lying” sign Terry was holding in the back of the room. Terry set the sign down and the officer did not confiscate it.
A short time later, Handelsman addressed the mayor and council during the call to the public to challenge town officials to cite a statute or code being violated by those holding signs. Then Handelsman, Ryff, and Terry each decided to silently hold their signs.
“The Mayor halted the meeting and ordered the police to remove Dr. Ryff, Mr. Handelsman and Ms. Terry from the room. The police escorted them out of the meeting without incident,” according to the notice of claim, which notes the town code does not prohibit signs in the council chambers.
A First Amendment obstruction or retaliation violation could cost the town tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees plus potential damages to each of the three claimants. However, La Sota says his clients will settle for $1, but it will also cost something other than money.
In exchange for a complete release of their claims, the claimants will accept $1 as damages if Peterson and the town of Gilbert issue an official apology, La Sota wrote. In addition, Peterson would have to attend a First Amendment training class.
According to the notice of claim, Handelsman, Ryff, and Terry acknowledge that the government “need not tolerate actual disruptions of government business” and that courts have held that municipalities may enforce “certain free-speech restrictions.”
But those restrictions apply to time, place, and manner of public comment, La Sota noted, and even then courts have ruled such restrictions “must be reasonable, consistently enforced, and fall within constitutional parameters.”
Free speech restrictions by the government are also reviewed to ensure they “are both viewpoint neutral, equally and consistently enforced, as well as narrowly-tailored to meet the needs of the governing body to conduct its business, free of actual disruptions,” La Sota noted.
It is also not allowable to engage in retaliation against someone for asserting their First Amendment rights, which is what the notice of claim alleges Peterson did when she ordered Ryff removed. La Sota points to Ryff’s critical comments about the mayor during his call to the public comments at the prior council meeting.
“Then, at the very next meeting, 50 ‘Stop Lying’ signs show up with essentially the same message,” the notice of claim states, adding that Ryff contends Peterson believed Ryff was responsible for the signs.
“Dr. Ryff’s rights were violated by a vindictive Mayor who seized the opportunity to retaliate against him for years of political opposition and for having filed ethics complaints against her in the past,” the notice of claim states.
The notice of claim further alleges Handelsman, Ryff, and Terry were not being disruptive in how they displayed their signs at the Sept. 20 meeting. It also contends Peterson did not treat all sign-holders the same during that meeting, including an attendee with a visible “Don’t Mesa My Gilbert” sign who was not forced to leave the meeting.
“Certain persons silently holding signs in the back of the room may have been a distraction to the Mayor, but not every distraction is necessarily a disruption and not every disruption is an actual disruption which impedes the ability of the Council to do its business,” La Sota notes, citing a major First Amendment ruling from the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals (Norse v. City of Santa Cruz, 2010).
Peterson later commented on her actions, arguing she could not read what was written on the signs. Yet that does not explain why his clients were ordered out of the council chambers while others with signs were allowed to remain, La Sota wrote in the notice of claim.
Town officials have 60 days to reject or accept the settlement demand included in the notice of claim.
Gilbert’s fire and police departments had a gay old time at Phoenix Pride Parade over the weekend — but some are questioning whether they misused taxpayer funds.
The Gilbert Fire Department and Gilbert Police Department issued a joint post commemorating their participation in the pride parade. The video depicts first responders smiling, waving rainbow gear, and walking with parade attendees, and a fire truck and police car flash their lights; the remix of Earth, Wind, & Fire’s “September” popularized by TikTok trends plays over the video.
Both the fire and police departments were an hour (50 miles) round trip from the Phoenix Pride Parade. Factoring in the drive time at the parade and the average cost of gas in the area ($5.33), that appearance likely cost between $60 and $90 in gas for the fire truck alone.
Gilbert’s first responders don’t attend every large annual parade. For example: they didn’t participate in the Arizona for Life March & Rally in January.
Gilbert Vice Mayor Aimee Yentes told AZ Free News in a statement that this was another example of the town’s wasteful spending for the sake of virtue signaling.
“Despite the Town insisting the organization is as lean as they can possibly get without impacting services, this latest antic is clear indication that they are plagued by a paradigm of waste,” said Yentes. “After all, as residents just struggle to afford putting gas in their car, the town is deploying expensive assets to drive 20+ miles to essentially virtue signal. Town equipment is meant to provide value to town taxpayers. It is not a tool for employees to make their own personal and political statements. This is wholly inappropriate and a slap in the face to taxpayers.”
Some social media users praised the Gilbert first responders for attending the parade, but some questioned the appropriateness of their involvement.
“What does the fire department and police department have to do with people’s sexual kinks?” wrote one user.
“Pretty sure everyone here wouldn’t be just as happy for the police and fire department if they rolled in a MAGA rally for our president a few years ago…” wrote another user.
The manager’s office reportedly promised to look into the first responders’ use of taxpayer funds. However, it’s unlikely town leaders intend to investigate, since the town posted it on their official TikTok account as well.
“Gilbert Fire & Rescue, Gilbert Police Department, and other Gilbert members participated in the 2022 Phoenix Pride Parade,” stated the post. “The Phoenix Pride Parade brings our diverse LGBTQ+ and allied communities together for a weekend of camaraderie and celebration of our past, present and future. #gilbertfire #gilbertfireandrescue #gilbertpd #gilbertaz #gilbertpolice #gilbertarizona #phoenixarizona #phoenixaz #pride #prideparade #phoenixpride.”
The Gilbert Fire Department’s use of taxpayer funds to attend a Pride Parade occurred less than a month before voters will decide on Proposition 310, a new statewide sales tax to increase revenue for fire districts. Firefighter union leaders say that they’re struggling to meet operation costs due to inflation. Unlike a general fund allocation, the sales tax revenue wouldn’t require transparency on expenditures.
This year’s Phoenix Pride Parade sponsors included Albertsons/Safeway, the Arizona Diamondbacks, Bank of America, Bank of the West BNP Paribas, Banner Health, Bud Light, Carvana, Corona, Desert Financial Credit Union, Discover, DriveTime, Edward Jones, Embry Health, The Foundry, The Hartford, In-Power Motors, Nationwide, PetSmart, Progressive Leasing, SVB, Slalom, Snooze, Solari, Starbucks, Target, Toyota, and Upgrade.
Last Tuesday, hundreds of concerned Gilbert citizens enlivened a town council study session with vocal opposition to funding any rail project — not even a survey.
Most of the council expressed confusion about the citizens’ discontent, denying intent on establishing a commuter rail in the town. Councilwoman Kathy Tilque stated repeatedly that there were no plans to bring a commuter rail to Gilbert, and that it probably wouldn’t ever happen. Mayor Brigette Peterson and councilmembers Scott Anderson, Yung Koprowski, and Scott September echoed Tilque’s sentiment throughout the study session, which neared two hours.
“I’m just trying to figure out why we have so many upset people thinking we’re spending taxpayer dollars to bring a commuter rail here,” said Tilque.
Earlier this year, the council proposed a $289,000 consulting contract for a feasibility study on establishing a commuter rail. Council discussion on the subject revealed similar divisions that persisted in last week’s discussions.
When Peterson repeated that Gilbert hasn’t issued plans to build a commuter rail, the citizens shouted “Lies!” Peterson insisted she was telling the truth, further claiming that Gilbert wouldn’t have any say over the establishment of a commuter rail on existing rail lines. Vice Mayor Aimee Yentes rebutted that the town’s actions over the years conflicted Peterson’s claim.
Yentes told AZ Free News that the council’s denial of commuter rail planning was “semantics,” pointing out a February 2018 development agreement, Resolution No. 3955, that Peterson signed onto while a councilwoman. That development agreement described the possibility of a light rail as well as a commuter rail, further conflicting with another one of Peterson’s claims in a July statement that the term “light rail” was used by outside groups and individuals, and that “there are no plans, discussions, or any considerations to construct or extend a light rail” to Gilbert.
The development agreement further noted that the town of Gilbert would be responsible for the cost of future development of a transit station at Cooley Station Village Center. According to a 2018 study on commuter rails conducted by the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), nearly all commuter rails require a dedicated local sales tax to operate.
During the study session, Yentes asserted that the community’s discontent stems from the council’s unwillingness to take a definitive stance for or against a commuter rail, not a misunderstanding over the town’s role as one of several decision makers on establishing a commuter rail.
“Clearly they’ve been planning for it. They’ve done studies. They’ve dedicated transit stations. They’ve entered into a development agreement that tried to bind us to it. There’s lots of things that Gilbert can do to either plan to do it or be a thorn in their side,” said Yentes.
Yentes proposed an ordinance to prohibit the use of town resources for the furtherance of commuter and light rail development. That would also prohibit additional taxes and application of funds to carry out related studies. It will be voted on during next Tuesday’s town council meeting.
Yentes warned that the city of Phoenix’s commuter and light rails “cannibalized” their transportation budget to the extent that the city couldn’t fix potholes, prompting citizens to pass an additional sales tax in 2017 to cover those expenses.
Tilque called Yentes’ proposed ordinance “dishonest representation” since future councils may overturn it. However, that’s something that new leadership may do at any given time with any ordinance, which Yentes pointed out.
One citizen, Brandon Ryff, told AZ Free News that Tilque’s opposition to the ordinance came across as doubting citizens’ intelligence. Ryff expressed frustration over the conflict between Peterson’s remarks and actions concerning a commuter rail, citing the 2018 development agreement.
Ryff also criticized commuter rails as outdated, “19th-century” technology, pointing out the consistent drop in ridership throughout major cities in Arizona and other states. He contrasted the decline in ridership with the consistent uptick in crime. In Phoenix, crime rates have nearly doubled since 2016; a majority of those crimes were aggravated assault and drug offenses.
“We laugh at it and say that [a commuter rail] looks like a solution looking for a problem,” said Ryff. “For whatever reason and whatever motivation, our town council is defying all logic concerning crime statistics and progress. I can’t help but feel this is related to money from somewhere. Someone is influencing these people to behave this way. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Another citizen, Tyler Farnsworth, remarked to AZ Free News that their opposition was a positive example of engaged citizenry, yet most of the council portrayed it as a negative. Farnsworth commended Yentes’ proposed resolution barring their tax money from funding town rail projects.
“The Mayor and several members of the Council were visibly and vocally annoyed that citizens chose to show up and speak their mind,” said Farnsworth. “We just want to be heard. We want our tax money to be spent wisely. I hope the meeting was a wake up call to this Council. We are watching. Welcome to democracy in action.”
With all the pre-election hype about possible violence at polling stations for Tuesday’s primary election, the most serious election day misconduct appears to have been a town councilman removing opposition campaign signs.
AZ Free News has confirmed that current Gilbert councilman Scott September is the subject of a criminal investigation initiated Tuesday when a Gilbert police officer was dispatched to the Southeast Regional Library off South Greenfield Road and East Guadalupe Road for a report of a man pulling up campaign signs.
In Arizona, it is a Class 2 misdemeanor for an unauthorized person to “knowingly remove, alter, deface or cover any political sign of any candidate for public office” in the days leading up to an election unless the sign’s location “is hazardous to public safety, obstructs clear vision in the area. or interferes with” the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or is otherwise in violation of state law.
September has been a councilman since April 2020 and was seeking to remain in office on this year’s primary election ballot.
According to public records, September was at the library which serves as a Maricopa County voting center on Tuesday morning when at least two witnesses say they saw him pulling up campaign signs which opposed his election.
Andrew Adams, the Republican chairman of Legislative District 14, had reportedly placed some of the campaign signs near the library property but well outside the mandated 75-foot “no electioneering” buffer zone around official voting locations. It was Adams who told police he actually witnessed September tampering with the signs.
Richard Young, another witness, told the responding officer that he took images of September at the library. Young also reportedly snapped a photo of September’s vehicle to share with police.
September reportedly handed over the signs to Adams at the library. There is no indication any of the signs were damaged.
As of press time, AZ Free News is awaiting a response from the Gilbert Police Department as to whether the investigation has been referred to an outside law enforcement agency given the conflict of interest with the suspect being a town councilman.
If cited and convicted, September faces a sentence of four months in the county jail and / or a fee for each count contained in the conviction.
Scottsdale, Gilbert, and Chandler ranked in the top 21 best U.S. cities to raise a family, according to the latest study from WalletHub. Scottsdale was number 10, while Gilbert was number 13, and Chandler ranked 21.
Of all the Arizona cities included, Tucson ranked the lowest. Peoria ranked 49, Phoenix ranked 103, Tempe ranked 106, Mesa ranked 114, Glendale ranked 140, and Tucson ranked 156.
WalletHub assessed 182 cities: 150 of the most populated cities in the country, and at least two of the most populated cities in each state.
The nine other best cities to raise a family were, in order: Fremont, California; Overland Park, Kansas; Irvine, California; Plano, Texas; Columbia, Maryland; San Diego, California; Seattle, Washington; San Jose, California; and Madison, Wisconsin.
The 10-worst cities to raise a family were, in order: Detroit, Michigan; Cleveland, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; Birmingham, Alabama; San Bernardino, California; Newark, New Jersey; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Shreveport, Louisiana; Jackson, Mississippi; and Augusta, Georgia.
In its study, WalletHub factored family fun, health and safety, education and child care, affordability, and socio-economics. Each factor was weighted 20 points.
Family fun accounted for: playgrounds per capita, ice rinks per capita, skate parks per capita, bike rental facilities per capita, mini golf locations per capita, parkland acreage, walkability, bike score, number of attractions, recreation friendliness, sports fan friendliness, ideal weather, share of families with young children, and average commute time.
Health and safety accounted for: air quality, water quality, access to healthy foods, pediatricians per capita, share of uninsured children, public hospitals ranking, infant mortality rate, pedestrian fatality rate, driving fatality rate, violent crime rate, property crime rate, family homelessness, and percentage of residents who are fully vaccinated.
Education and child care accounted for: school system quality, high school graduation rate, childcare costs, child day care services, childcare workers per children under 14, parental leave policy, and summer learning opportunities.
Socio-economics accounted for: two parent families, separation and divorce rate, families living in poverty, families receiving food stamps, unemployment rate, underemployment rate, debt per median earnings, wealth gap, and foreclosure rate.
Congressman Andy Biggs (R-AZ-05) expressed that he was honored to learn of Gilbert’s ranking.