A Gilbert Town Council member suggested that overzealous town employees who pulled down a bond opponent’s signs influenced the outcome of the election that saw the $515-million measure pass by a razor-thin margin.
The transportation and infrastructure bond passed by just 164 votes in the Nov. 2 mail-in election.
“I’m concerned that the Town may have illegally interfered in the election,” Councilman Laurin Hendrix said at the Nov. 16 meeting. “No matter which side of the bond or any election you are, on you should be concerned if we can’t trust the integrity of our elections.”
At issue were signs opposing the bond posted at major intersections by resident Jim Torgeson just before early voting began in October.
“My understanding is the gentleman put them up over a period of about a day and the following day the signs were gone,” Hendrix said. “Turns out that the town instructed town employees to take those signs down immediately, urgently without delay.”
Soon after, Torgeson hired an attorney who threatened to sue the town if it continued to remove the signs, saying his client’s freedom of speech was being violated.
The Town said it took down 57 signs, claiming they violated state statute by not containing the name of a contact person. The attorney argued the statute didn’t apply to Torgeson because he wasn’t a political candidate or a political action committee.
Hendrix said the town attorney responded that although he disagreed with the assertions, the Town will no longer remove the signs.
“So, one day the gentleman puts up the signs, they are illegal and they are such a danger and a harm to the public that we need to take them down immediately, expediently at all costs,” Hendrix said. “They need to be gone right now.
“The next day we don’t agree with the reasons that his attorney claims that they are legal but we claim those reasons are questionable. I guess you can say we think they are still illegal. But even though they are still illegal because we disagree with the reasons they’ve stated for making them legal it’s OK to leave them up now, not a problem. Yesterday, they were illegal and it’s urgently needed to get rid of them (and now) they’re still illegal but its OK to stay up.”
Hendrix said residents using the state open records law shared with him email exchanges between employees and a phone message by the town engineer to a code compliance supervisor over the signs.
In the voice mail message, the town engineer said he was driving through town and noticed a few political signs in public rights-of-way. He said he wasn’t sure if they were legal because he didn’t see contact information for whoever put them up and suggested code compliance staff go out and check the signs.
“Makes sense,” Hendrix said. “I could imagine for the town engineer that that would be a high priority, that’s something he wants to be on top of driving past a sign at 30 mph (or) maybe sitting at a red light with his binoculars. I would imagine all town employees are on top of those sorts of things, not just code compliance.”
What also troubled Hendrix was an email by a code compliance supervisor stating she might “be looking for volunteers to potential work this Friday or this weekend” to remove the signs. In the email, she indicated code compliance called the phone number on the signs and left a message that the signs were out of compliance and would be confiscated in 24 hours if not fixed.
“There’s one email that went out not only to code compliance officers but other town employees – ‘we got to get these signs down. I may be looking for volunteers to work overtime, which I believe that means we will pay you time and a half to get these signs down this weekend,’” Hendrix said. “‘We’re willing to pay overtime (because) these signs are a danger to the town,’ it sounds like.”
He reminded everyone that the Town lost a U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled Gilbert couldn’t restrict signs based on their content.
“You would think we wouldn’t do it again,” Hendrix said, adding that he took note of five different signs that including offering cash for diabetic strips, Christmas lights installation and help for meth addiction during his 10-mile drive to work.
“I shudder to think how many of these signs are endangering the town,” he continued. “If you go through the rest of town (with) all these illegal signs, I didn’t see any emails offering overtime to take these signs down. I guess these signs are OK. The signs that said ‘Don’t trust the mayor, no on the bond,’ those created danger for the town.
“I have to wonder when the signs that were removed and not put back up…could that have influenced 164 votes?”
Hendrix also said he received statements signed by a half dozen people claiming council members and employees at the weekly farmer’s market downtown attempted to persuade voters to approve the bond.
“They were making comments like, ‘if the bond passes we will have less congestion, we will have less traffic, we will have better public transportation,’” Hendrix said. “Those are not factual statements. Those are conclusions you make from what the bond is paying for. That is an effort to persuade someone to vote in favor of the bond.”
Hendrix said there were hundreds of emails obtained by the records request and he’s only reviewed a third of them. “I can’t even venture a guess what else might come up in these emails,” he said.
Vice Mayor Yung Koprowski, who attended the meeting via phone, strongly objected to Hendrix’s allegations that elected officials tried to influence voters.
“I was the council member who attended a Saturday farmer’s market in the spring of 2021 to help educate the public with facts and to have a better understanding of what was going to be coming to the Council in June for the transportation bond election,” she said. “I believe that the statements and allegations that Council member Hendrix just stated are not factual. We’ve tried very hard to state the importance of the transportation bond and encouraging our residents to vote.”
She noted that other council members have stated their opposition to the bond while on the dais.
“I just don’t appreciate allegations being made when they weren’t said at all,” Koprowski said.
Councilwoman Aimee Yentes said elected officials can go out and advocate for an issue, but can’t use town resources.
“Council member Hendrix brought up some issues and areas of concern that I think definitely needs some further investigation,” Yentes said. “We need to look at those closely because the margin was so close. That’s really where the rubber hits the road here for me.”
Had the bond past in a landslide vote, Yentes said she would have felt comfortable moving forward with accepting the election results. She and Hendrix voted not to approve the results.
Yentes raised other concerns such as “overpaying” a political consultant that indicated the bond would past with 60 percent of the votes but was way off and holding the election in an off year.
“The reality is you have poor voter turnout and poor voter turnout does not advantage the taxpayers generally speaking,” she said, adding the bond proponents were better funded. “So we really did every advantage as far as the town in getting this past.
“I was never out and out opposed to a transportation bond in concept but the way this has been rolled out, I think is problematic. I don’t feel comfortable at this point accepting the canvass of results because really it’s that margin of whatever you call it – cheating or (government’s) thumb on the scale.”
Councilwoman Kathy Tilque, who co-chaired the bond committee with Koprowski, said although Torgeson maintained the sign statute didn’t pertain to him because he was acting as a private individual, public comments and public emails showed otherwise.
Tilque said there was an organized group effort behind opposing the bond and once that happens they need to follow campaign finance laws.
“This is kind of a wake-up call that the way we conduct elections should be very clear,” she said.
Councilman Scott Anderson asked and received from Town Attorney Chris Payne confirmation that the Town was not in violation of the Supreme Court ruling but was regulating the signs as required under state law.
Dr. Brandon Ryff, who spoke at the meeting and questioned the removal of Torgeson’s signs, disagreed with Payne’s assessment.
“Hiding behind the statute to justify the Town’s behavior to limit free speech isn’t going to work,” said Ryff in an email to Anderson. “Enforcing the statute for these political signs is not an affirmative defense for the Town not enforcing the very same statute for other types of signs (especially with all the evidence of coordination by Town employees).”
Ryff said the Town went above and beyond when it came to the signs opposing the bond but turned a blind eye to other signs posted around Gilbert, which is not consistent enforcement
He said the council shouldn’t have certified the election results without investigating the allegations.