Gilbert Town Council Denies Citizen’s Free Speech

On the evening of February 9, 2010, at a regularly scheduled Gilbert Town Council meeting, Mayor John Lewis announced that citizens would no longer be allowed to speak either in favor or against a sales tax increase dedicated to public safety at Council meetings until after the Election on 5/18/2010. He advised that this was due to an Arizona Statute that citizens speech would constitute “using Town resources to influence an election.”

Normally, citizens are allowed 3 minutes at the beginning of a Council meeting to speak about an issue not on the agenda. But apparently the Town had heard enough from the citizens over this hotly contested issue, and invoked ARS 9-500.14 to silence them. Thus, words like “freedom of speech” and “the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” over a tax increase is now “election advocacy” and “campaigning.” Even though the Council recently voted to send the ¼ cent tax increase to the ballot, the Council has the power to stop it. Many citizens want them to do just that and save taxpayers $87,000 in election costs.

Here is the Arizona Revised Statute that Susan Goodwin, the Town’s Attorney, used to stop citizens from speaking:
9-500.14. Use of city or town resources or employees to influence elections; prohibition

A. A city or town shall not use its personnel, equipment, materials, buildings or other resources for the purpose of influencing the outcomes of elections. Notwithstanding this section, a city or town may distribute informational reports on a proposed bond election as provided in section 35-454. Nothing in this section precludes a city or town from reporting on official actions of the governing body.

B. Employees of a city or town shall not use the authority of their positions to influence the vote or political activities of any subordinate employee.

C. Nothing contained in this section shall be construed as denying the civil and political liberties of any employee as guaranteed by the United States and Arizona Constitutions.

Here is the link to the Council meeting, where Mayor Lewis makes his announcement under Communications From Citizens, and where he further cautions citizens that if they speak of the tax issue, they will be reminded to stop. In fact, this happened during citizen speech. Also, at least one citizen was not called to the podium to speak at all, because she had noted on her “Request to Speak” form that she would speak against the sales tax issue.

In contrast, this Council voted on 1/26/2010, to not only allow the League of Women Voters to use the Council Chambers at a time when it is not normally used, but approved taxpayer funding to pay for: 1) audio-video systems, 2) staff to work with the League in finalizing the date and scheduling the facilities, and 3) personnel to televise and rebroadcast the forum. Per the 1/23/2010 Minutes, this Forum will be held before the end of February, which is before the election.

The Town attorney, Susan Goodwin, defended the League of Women Voter’s right to “use the town’s resources” to discuss the budget and tax issues because they will be presenting a balance of both sides.

The problem that Ms. Goodwin has with allowing Gilbert citizens the right to speak during an Open Meeting is that those who might be against the tax increase, or for it, might outnumber the other side. Perhaps Ms. Goodwin can advise the Council regarding various methods that could be used to control citizens speech so that an equal balance of opinion will be ensured, no matter what the topic.

They could call it “The Fairness Doctrine.”

Here is the link to a newspaper article regarding this issue:

And this is the email address for reaching Mayor Lewis and all Council Members:

Anita Christy
Gilbert, AZ