Peterson, sign carriers

Holding signs that got them ejected are Brandon Ryff and an unidentified woman against the wall while Ryan Handelsman is seated in front of Ryff. (Cecilia Chan/GSN Staff)

Civility and the First Amendment clashed in last week’s Gilbert Town Council meeting after Mayor Brigette Peterson directed police to escort three residents out of chambers for silently holding signs that read “Stop Lying” and “Don’t Mesa my Gilbert.”

“I don’t think it’s legal,” said Brandon Ryff the day after he was ushered out of the Sept. 20 meeting. “Prohibiting us from exercising our First Amendment rights.”

Ryff said he is contemplating legal action or recalling the mayor for overstepping her authority.

Peterson told the Gilbert Sun News that “due to an increasing number of disruptions during recent meetings, moving forward, there will also be a zero-tolerance policy which falls under the mayoral duties and responsibilities surrounding Council and special meetings per Gilbert’s Municipal Code.”

Morrison Ranch residents had packed the meeting, some toting the signs, to show their continuing opposition to The Ranch, a light industrial project proposed on 311 acres adjacent to the Elliot Groves neighborhood where Ryff lives.

Ryff said he could understand if he and the other two people were being disruptive by throwing things, yelling, shouting, blocking the audience’s view or interrupting the meeting.

But none of that happened.

“I felt like I had the right to express my political beliefs,” Ryff said. “And I had been denied along with Ryan (Handelsman) and the lady next to me quietly holding our signs up in the air.”

Vice Mayor Aimee Yentes, who is tasked with calling the names of speakers and laying out the protocol, admonished the crowd a few times during the meeting to refrain from clapping in approval after speakers spoke out against The Ranch.

“We don’t actually allow clapping in the communications from citizens,” Yentes said, eliciting laughter from the audience.

“The purpose is we do try to retain decorum so that everybody has the ability and the time that we’re allotting to this portion of the agenda,” she continued, “and they can speak freely whether it’s in support of the majority opinion or not and so to create that kind of environment that’s why we do that.”

She also asked that people not to waive signs.

Less than 10 minute later, Peterson banged the gavel as audience members clapped for a speaker.

“That sign needs to go in the back of the room,” Peterson said, pointing. “The woman just raised a sign in the back row. The sign needs to go. That lady right there. We have asked for decorum. Please.”

Less than 30 minutes later, Peterson showed she meant business.

“Remove the people from the back of the room, please,” she instructed police. “Those three people holding up signs.”

As officers removed Ryff, Handelsman and the unidentified woman, audience members shouted their disapproval with one man saying, “That’s what Nazis would do.”

“We can just end public comment right now,” Peterson responded. “You can leave, too, sir if that’s what you think.

“We’re going back to the rules of decorum in this meeting. We are trying to listen to everybody here this evening and you’re not giving them the opportunity and for us to hear from them.”

Ryff and Handelsman each filed separate ethics violation complaints against Peterson in 2021 after public records requests showed she had shared the conversations she had with Morrison Ranch residents with a developer proposing more density for an apartment project in their community.

The developer co-chaired Peterson’s mayoral campaign and was one of her largest donors.

An outside attorney eventually found no violations but faulted Peterson for exercising poor judgment.

Prior to his removal, Handelsman addressed the council.

“I don’t believe there is any statute or code that prevents meeting attendees from silently holding signs,” he said. “I see rules that prohibit disorderly conduct like clapping or threats.

“I don’t see anything that would prohibit silent displays of a sign so that seems to be a First Amendment free speech and it seems like you guys are attempting to silence us and violate our personal rights.”

According to Town code, it’s illegal to disrupt or interrupt any regular or special council meeting and that any person violating this “shall be summarily ejected from the meeting (and) any person violating any provision of this section shall be fined not more than $50 and by imprisonment until payment of the fine.”

First Amendment experts note that council meetings are considered “limited public forums” and a governmental jurisdiction is allowed to enforce reasonable time, place and manner restrictions as long as they are “content neutral” and are “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.”

Ryff, a dentist, said he arrived late to the meeting at the Gilbert Public Safety and Training Facility with no intention of speaking but just to observe.

In a statement to GSN, Peterson said:

My request for removal was due to the disruption and to preserve meeting decorum, not due to what was on the sign, nor who was holding it, which from 70+ feet away I couldn’t tell anyway;...I value residents’ input and try to balance between providing residents their time to speak, following state laws regarding our ability to respond during the public comment portion of meetings and ensuring decorum is maintained to allow for productive council meetings.

“The Town Council has historically prohibited anyone from demonstrating with signs during Town Council meetings in order to maintain decorum and avoid disruption of the meetings and so moving forward this will be the norm.”

Ryff said, “As I was walking in, somebody was handing out signs and handed one to me. “By the time I got here it was standing-room only, so I was standing in the back of the room.”

Ryff claimed that the mayor has no authority to order police officers to do anything. Nine officers stood guard inside the auditorium.

“We were not breaking any laws,” he said. “We were trying to exercise our Constitutional rights as Americans and concerned citizens. We were silent. We didn’t do anything but raise signs.

“I don’t know of anybody who was removed from a council meeting for silently holding a sign. They can’t have certain rules of decorum for certain people at certain times.”

He pointed to a presentation before the public comments where audience members were allowed to clap for town employees recognized for awards.

Ryff said he felt the mayor “way overstepped and made a huge mistake” in having him removed, although he acquiesced to the officer’s request in order to avoid disrupting the meeting.

“I am considering filing a lawsuit, absolutely,” Ryff said, adding that he still needed to confer with attorneys before deciding if he wanted to go that route.

He also planned to contact the state Attorney General’s Office, Judicial Watch and the ACLU or file another ethics violation complaint.

“I may decide to spend that money on a recall effort rather than pursing (a case) through federal court,” Ryff said. “Residents are tired of her embarrassing our town and they are tired of her antics. It’s 50-50 but something needs to be done.

“I think she is ignorant. She didn’t go to college and I don’t think she ever read anything about the Constitution. We have an uneducated person in a position of power that just needs to be checked.”

Terri Naddy, a county island resident who has a beef with the town over an eminent domain action affecting her and her neighbors, last week filed an ethics violation complaint against Peterson.

Naddy said because Council’s prior requests of no applause, the people holding the signs at the meeting were complying with that.

“By definition, decorum is ‘behavior in keeping with good taste and propriety,’” Naddy said. “Mayor Peterson had police remove a sign from a member of the public and then remove three people from the room under the guise of keeping decorum.

“I feel that the mayor instructing officers to remove these three people was going too far. I also feel that this was retaliatory in nature as one of the people was Brandon Ryff, a gentleman who has called the mayor out on several other of her indiscretions.

“The mayor has a history of scolding the public audience as if they were her own children. I for one am tired of it.”