Brigette Peterson is half-way through her first year as mayor and is already under siege
The former councilwoman and longtime planning commissioner has been accused of ethics violations and recently a podcast accusing her of racism is circulating – again.
Peterson called the podcast, which first debut a month before the July primary, a “dirty stunt.”
The podcast features Jason Cvancara, a former cop who unsuccessfully ran for Gilbert Council twice, interviewing Elizabeth “Eli” Harper for her experience as a Black woman living in town. At the time of the interview, the country, including Gilbert, was experiencing civil unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd.
Harper, who owns an employee relations company, said she built her home in Gilbert in 1998 and loves the town and served on a number of boards such as the Chandler Republican Women’s organization and the now defunct Gilbert Human Relations Commission.
She said she had nothing bad to say about Gilbert but then recalled an incident in 2015 when she was contemplating running for Town Council and it was suggested she speak with Peterson, then a councilwoman.
“I went to chat with her about you know thoughts of me running for Town Council,” Harper said in the podcast. “I remember so vividly her saying, ‘you can’t run’ and I said, ‘like why?’ and she said ‘because you’re Black.
“And it looked like she took pride in her ability to say that so confidently,” Harper continued. “I just remember that feeling that came over me. I can honestly say that I can’t really tell you that I’ve experienced racism in my life but that was my first time. If I had to relate to racism that was it. For someone to tell me that I can’t do something that she was free to do, though she was free to do it but I should not run because of the color of my skin.”
Harper said people like Peterson needed to be weeded out and had no place in politics or leadership roles.
Matt Nielsen, who ran against Peterson last year for mayor, singled her out in his inaugural newsletter on Gilbert issues and attached a link to that podcast interview.
“Gilbert residents express to me regularly that they have experienced a sharp decline in trust of elected officials in our Town,” Nielsen said in his commentary released July 1.
“More specifically, Mayor Brigette Peterson has disappointed and angered thousands of residents with her apparent disregard for their rights and desires when they come into conflict with the desires of wealthy developers,” he wrote.
Nielsen acknowledged that because he opposed Peterson for mayor, anything he says will be “automatically suspect” so he is leaving it up for people to form their own opinion.
Nielsen said his “What’s Going on in Gilbert” newsletter reached just under 1,000 people and he anticipated a monthly write-up.
“The most common reaction to the Elizabeth Harper story is shock and disgust,” Nielsen told Gilbert Sun News in an email. “Residents can’t believe they hadn’t heard of it before and they’re disappointed that something like this wasn’t disqualifying for a local politician.”
Nielsen said it wasn’t the residents of Morrison Ranch who approached him to do the newsletter.
Two residents in Morrison Ranch’s Lakeview Trails each filed in June complaints with the Town against Peterson, accusing her of a conflict of interest and feeding information to a developer who wanted to increase the density of proposed apartments near them. The developer, Howard Morrison, co-chaired Peterson’s mayoral campaign and donated to her election.
Peterson denied wrongdoing with the ethics complaints and denounced the podcast. She provided Gilbert Sun News the same comments she posted on social media in June 2020 when she first addressed Harper’s comments.
“I want to assure you that the statements in that podcast have never been and will never be said by me and can be confirmed by the third-party present during that meeting,” Peterson said in her email. “This is a dirty stunt to discredit my good name and my longevity in the Town of Gilbert.”
Peterson included in her email a recycled comment from Kayla Kolar, the former president/CEO of HD South, who arranged for and was present at the meeting.
Kolar, now executive director of the nonprofit House of Refuge, supported Peterson, calling her “a woman who champions diversity.”
“Elizabeth wanted advice on running for office and Brigette had just been elected to Town Council,” Kolar said. “We discussed getting more involved in the community, how difficult it can be to run for office, and the time commitment it takes. None of the statements shared in the podcast were said during that meeting.”
Former Councilman Jared Taylor, when asked last year to share what he knew of the situation, gave a different recollection.
He said he was the one who encouraged Harper to meet with Peterson to get her insight for running for Council. Taylor was the Council liaison to the Human Relations Board when Harper served.
“After her visit with Brigitte, she told me the same story that she shared in the podcast,” Taylor said in a social media post in June 2020. “She had previously shared her story with the HRC in a public meeting. I remember being very sad that Brigitte would discourage someone from running for Council on the basis of color.”
Because it was the HRC’s last meeting before disbanding, there were no formal minutes but just handwritten notes.
The disjointed notes included “Elizabeth-comment,” “stated working to run for council,” “was discouraged,” and “Not Black but conservative.”
Taylor also vouched for Harper, whom he has known for a number of years, as “credible and honest.”
Harper last week stood by her comments made in the podcast. She said she was unaware of Nielsen’s newsletter dredging up the podcast.
Harper, who has since moved from Gilbert, said she didn’t file a formal complaint with the Town at the time because “what (Peterson) said wasn’t illegal.”
“She just said something to me that was inappropriate than illegal,” Harper said. “I did share it at the time because I was on the HRC. I did share it with council members and shared it with others.
“I was disgusted by what she said. She was in a position to support change and was not interested in it.”
Harper said in a second meeting with Peterson to find out what she meant by her comments, Peterson denied making them.
“She initially said it and didn’t remember saying it the second time we met up,” Harper recalled.
Harper also found Kolar’s backing of Peterson “very disappointing” but that she has the utmost respect for Kolar and didn’t want to drag her into this issue.
Harper criticized Peterson, stating, “She’s in the position of decision-making for so many people and she lacks integrity. That is unfortunate for someone in her position to not want to see equality for everyone.”
“Gilbert is not a bad place but there’s old rules and old thinking in Gilbert that really needs to be revised,” she said, adding:
“People who participated in the approval of segregated schools, the mindset is still in Gilbert in some of the older generations. Their descedants still carry that thought process where Gilbert doesn’t see everybody as equal.”