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.
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.
According to Mayor Brigette Peterson, the Gilbert Town Council should reconsider offering $75,000 of taxpayer money annually for employee sex changes. The motion failed in a council meeting last week. After the vote, Peterson indicated that the sex change surgery – referred to as ‘gender-affirming surgery’ – would return to committee for review in the future.
Currently, the town benefits cover therapy and hormone treatments.
Councilmember Aimee Yentes spoke up first on the issue. She said she supported the 3 percent premium increases, but not the sex change surgery.
“I think those are policies that deviate from other positions we’ve taken as a community that delve more into social policy rather than strictly providing medical[ly] necessary benefits to our employees,” said Yentes.
Vice Mayor Yung Koprowski only spoke up to mention she’d vote for adding sex change surgery coverage only to align with Affordable Care Act (ACA) industry standard.
Councilmember Scott September said he concurred with Yentes’ assessment.
The question of necessity for such coverage came into play. Councilmember Laurin Hendrix asked the human resources representative, Deputy Chief People Officer Kristen Drew, if any applicants within the past 5 years had refused to apply for or accept employment because the town didn’t offer sex change surgery coverage.
Drew said there hadn’t been any such applicants.
Despite this history, the mayor claimed that not offering this surgery would be a deal breaker for employees in the future. She also urged the council to be more open-minded, to set aside their own values.
“At some point, it might become an issue and we’ll show that this community is forward-thinking, and there are times that we need to make the tough decisions that may not always align with our own thought process when it comes to our personal choices or our political choices or our religious choices, even but we put Gilbert in a position that provides for whatever the future may hold[,]” said Peterson. “I’m going to encourage our council members to be open-minded in this benefit and look to this community moving forward where we can be strong and handle situations like this that come forward and we’re faced with.”
In an interview with AZ Free News, Hendrix raised several points of contention about the added coverage and the mayor’s perspective. He stated that a sex change surgery is cosmetic – not a true health need.
“I see health insurance for health needs. And I don’t see this as a health need. It’s a cosmetic surgery by choice. I don’t see any reason that taxpayers should have to pay for that,” said Hendrix. “They were comparing it to autism syndrome at the meeting. You don’t wake up in the morning and think [you have autism]. That’s not something where you have a choice. The two are not similar.”
Hendrix said he doesn’t have an issue with people having the surgery. Rather, Hendrix said he doesn’t want taxpayers to have to foot the bill for it.
Further, Hendrix assessed that this benefit could be an incentive for people to take an underemployed job just for the surgery – and then leave after they got it.
It was Peterson’s request to council before the vote that stuck out to Hendrix the most.
“The mayor’s comments at the end were shocking. We have to ‘get past’ our moral values, our standards? But what else would I base my vote on, if I’m going to put aside my family values, my moral values, religious values, or personal standards? What’s my vote based on? What’s left? I gotta base my vote on something,” said Hendrix. “I hope she bases her vote on something other than who paid into her campaign.”
Councilmembers voted unanimously for the 3 percent premium increases, but the motion to add sex change surgery coverage failed 4-3. Yentes, September, Hendrix, and Scott Anderson voted against the measure. The Vice Mayor, Mayor, and Councilmember Kathy Tilque voted for it.