Town Council meeting

Toward the end of last week’s Town Council meeting, Mayor Brigette Peterson took notice of the Judicial Watch record requests.

A national conservative watchdog organization says qualified cops and firefighters may be getting shortchanged by Gilbert’s hiring process in favor of applicants’ gender or ethnicity.

To show a pattern in town hiring practices, Judicial Watch in early August requested two years of documents – including emails, policies and social media posts of employees such as Town Manager Patrick Banger, Town Attorney Chris Payne and Deputy Town Manager Leah Hubbard.  

“We just had concerns from citizens that the town manager’s office was allowing or promoting a critical race theory-type of agenda to be the guiding principal or policy within the town of Gilbert,” said Mark Spencer, the southwest projects coordinator in Phoenix for Judicial Watch. 

“Certainly, the most critical part, a very relevant part for taxpayers is the hiring and testing process of first responders. In other words, when equity is the priority instead of skill set or skill level, it could be problems for citizens dialing 911 for help.”

 Town officials deny the claim they prioritize gender and ethnicity over test scores in hiring first responders.

“The Gilbert Fire and Rescue and Gilbert Police Departments strongly value diversity as an asset in providing the highest level of service to our citizens, and our teams are consistently looking for opportunities to expand the ability for all to become members of our first responder team,” according to a statement released from Banger’s office. 

“The hiring and testing process for our first responders is arduous and multi-faceted, based on a number of key criteria, chief among them the ability to learn and perform appropriate critical thinking and decision making in high pressure environments and the ability to perform physical life-saving and life-preserving tasks and activities,” the statement said, adding:

“This comprehensive process, run in coordination with current first responder employees, identifies the most qualified candidates for our openings, and our hiring is not based on gender or ethnicity.”

To support its claims, the nonprofit Judicial Watch has requested town Human Resources Department records related to the use of  priority given gender or ethnicity in lieu of written test scores in the hiring process.

It also requested any evidence of any decision to lower qualifying employment test scores to match the lowest scores of applicants who had been moved forward in the hiring process based on gender or ethnicity.

It also has asked for records of increased costs/resources associated with the expanded fire and/or police department interview pool due to adding ender/ethnic candidates with lower test scores as well as correspondence to and from the civilian diversity expert on the battalion chief and/or Gilbert Police hiring panels.

The Town Clerk told Judicial Watch that there are “no responsive documents” related to those requests. 

But Spencer, a former Phoenix police officer, said he’s been assured by first responders the documents do exist.

“What will happen next is legal counsel over at Judicial Watch will format a strategy on how to address the issue,” he said. “Whether the town manager supplies or fails to supply when it comes to hiring practices, when it comes to first responders and critical race agenda, doesn’t match with reality. Front-line responders say it indeed is taking place.”

Spencer said it was a strong possibilily from what has been shared with him “that critical race theory existed both in the town’s hiring process and in utilizing the town’s digital media tools.” 

The nonpartisan Judicial Watch, founded in 1994 to promote transparency and accountability in government, law and politics, touts itself as the most active FOIA requestor and litigator operating today.

Some of the organization’s notable efforts included its attempt to obtain records related to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her staff’s response to the 2012 attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, and Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time in office, which Justice Watch claimed was to skirt FOIA requests. 

Although the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the group from deposing Clinton regarding the private account, the ensuing controversy helped sink her 2016 presidential bid.

What Judicial Watch has received so far includes documents related to the town’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Team and the names of the participants – Banger, former Mayor Jenn Daniels and Dana Berchman, chief digital officer – who attended the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative in 2019 and the associated costs for attending.

The Leadership Initiative states that it equips mayors and senior city officials with leadership skills and management tools to tackle their cities’ complex challenges and improve people’s quality of life.

But Spencer said the man behind the philanthropic group, former New York City Mayor and onetime Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, pushes a “liberal political agenda on how cities and town should run.”

“Mr. Bloomberg is anti-gun, very gun-control, whereas I would think Gilbert Town Council supports and understands the value and importance of Second Amendment rights – especially when the mayor has no problem being armed, as she has every right to. I think citizens are delighted she is able and she understands her rights and the rights of others she represents.”

And some of the documents for the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Group showed a push for a more inclusive environment at Town Hall with goals and ideas such as implementing unconscious-bias training, revamp Global Village and Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations to allow each to have a bigger impact and create a diversity page on the Town website.

In his FOIA letter to Banger, Spencer claimed staff used town resources to promote their political ideology.

“It is apparent that the Town of Gilbert has approved, is actively promoting and engaging in political speak by publicly supporting the BLM political and social agenda while using taxpayer funds,” he wrote, referring to Black Lives Matter.

Spencer included screen grabs of Berchman’s postings on her Twitter account – such as a picture of Police Chief Michael Soelberg taking a knee with Black Lives Matter protestors retweetong a Town Twitter account promotion of Blackout Tuesday in solidarity with the BLM movement.

“Black Lives Matter is a political agenda, a Marxist political agenda,” he said.

When the town uses resources to endorse the 1619 Project – an ongoing New York Times Magazine initiative to reframe American history by focusing on the role of slavery and the contributions of black Americans – or other critical race theories, it’s a use of public dollars to endorse a political agenda, according to Spencer.

 “The town manager and his subordinates are promoting it at taxpayers’ expense,” he said. “I’m confident taxpayers didn’t sign up for that. What is unfortunate is it’s taking place and the Council is not aware of it.”

Spencer pointed out while Berchman posted comments in support of BLM without repercussion, it’s not so for other employees.

The organization also requested and received documents where a firefighter was disciplined for social media postings supporting Blue Lives Matter, a pro law enforcement movement.

The fire engineer was disciplined twice for violating the Town’s social media guidelines. The employee’s posting included a public video of a fire truck with a Thin Blue Line flag mounted on the back, Back the Blue comments and a disparaging remark about George Floyd, the Black man killed while in police custody. 

A member from the public complained about one of the posts and called the firefighter “a white nationalist.”

The town found that the employee tagged the Gilbert Twitter account, the police department, the fire department and the police chief, holding himself out as a Gilbert employee and using “we” in expressing political opinions that gave an appearance he was speaking on behalf of the town and other employees.

The assistant fire chief noted a concern with the employee’s actions that he was undermining the department’s credibility and his ability to effectively render aid to all residents in Gilbert.

“The firefighter is disciplined for taking a stance for Back the Blue and Digital Media promotes BLM and critical race theory at taxpayers’ expense,” Spencer said. “Why is the firefighter disciplined for Blue Lives Matter and Digital Media goes unchecked for BLM?

“Perhaps Town Council is not aware of what the town manager is allowing.”

 Spencer said there appeared to be a real disconnect between what the town manager is doing and what Town Council is aware of.

“Also relevant to taxpayer in Gilbert is who is in charge of that town?” Spencer said. “Is it the town manager and the diversity team or taxpayers and voters and the Town Council?

“I think the town charter out there is similar to Phoenix’s where the Council runs the town and directs the town manager and not the other way around.”

Spencer said that chain of command appeared “somewhat muddled.”

Judicial Watch’s records request prompted Mayor Brigette Peterson to release a statement last week, demanding the Town investigate the allegations.

 She also admonished staff for not informing the Council immediately back in August when it received the FOIA request and stated “failure to do so is unacceptable.” 

The Town did not respond to a question about its protocol in informing elected leaders of record requests but did note that Banger has already authorized Pierce Coleman, PLLC to conduct “an independent investigation of the documents provided in the FOIA request.”

  “Our goal is always to provide transparency, and day-to-day, our goal is to impartially carry out the policy directives set by the Mayor and Council,” the statement from Banger’s Office read. “We are grateful for our Council’s continued efforts to foster an environment and community we are all proud to call home.”

Spencer said it’s possible the group will ask for more records from Gilbert and after it receives all its documents and reviews it, will strategize its next steps.