Under a policy being likened to something out of George Orwell’s iconic novel “1984,” a town in Arizona is paying out more than a million dollars in salaries to employ spies to monitor private social media posts of town employees for anything that aligns with conservative views.
Although the Gilbert Office of Digital Government (ODG) has urged town workers to support LGBTQ+ and Black Lives Matter (BLM) causes, it reprimanded a local firefighter for posting a picture of himself on Facebook posing with a life-sized cutout of former President Donald Trump.
The department even sent a warning notice to the local fire department after firefighters honked the horn of a town fire engine in support of a local Back The Blue rally.
“We must be careful not to take sides,” a memorandum sent by the ODG to the fire department warned.
The memo was part of dozens of documents the Goldwater Institute obtained through a public records request and shared with The Epoch Times.
Austin VanDerHeyden, municipal affairs liaison with the Arizona-based conservative watchdog group, told The Epoch Times that he has never seen such egregious censorship and deliberate mind control on the part of the government.
“It really is Big Brother in the flesh—they’re literally trying to silence anyone who doesn’t bend the knee to their agenda,” Mr. VanDerHeyden said. “This is unlike any arrangement we’ve seen anywhere else in the country—it’s straight out of a George Orwell novel.”
The Arizona town of nearly 268,000 people has its share of other problems.
In October 2023, 16-year-old Preston Lord was killed outside of a home hosting a Halloween party. His death remains unsolved. The town, the fifth largest municipality in Arizona, is also reeling from violence perpetrated by a gang of teenagers and young adults, dubbed the Gilbert Goons. For a year, they have been terrorizing other teens, and they have been accused of carrying out violent assaults, including sexual assaults, against them. Some members videotaped the assaults and posted them on social media.
The Goldwater Institute stated that a former ODG employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity quit over the ODG’s laser focus on pushing “woke” agendas among law enforcement while more serious problems persisted.
“When I worked there, they were pushing the chiefs of police and fire to be more liberal. Then there’s those emails about how excited they were about getting the chief to kneel to BLM,” the employee told the organization.
ODG Director Dana Berchman, Gilbert Town Manager Patrick Banger, and Mayor Brigette Peterson did not respond to repeated inquiries from The Epoch Times about the anti-conservative activities of the town agency.
It stated that it is charged with handling “all internal, external and digital communications, public relations, marketing and open data initiatives for Gilbert, AZ.”
The Goldwater Institute stated that records they obtained show that between 10 and 12 employees make up the office with staff earning annual salaries ranging from $60,000 to $200,000.
Town records show that it was first instituted in 2012, but details about the ODG’s operations surfaced when local newspaper AZ Free News recently published an investigative report about some of its practices.
“I left my black coffee outside because I didn’t want to call it racist when I came in here tonight,” Mr. Lavalle said at the beginning of his statement during the Jan. 23 meeting’s public comment session.
In the video, the white firefighter tells the black firefighter, who is holding a pot of coffee, that he doesn’t want any creamer or sugar in his coffee, saying in jest that he likes his coffee like he likes his firefighters: “strong, bold, and black.” The black firefighter chuckles in response.
Mr. Lavalle then held up what he called a restraining order sent by Ms. Berchman to the same firefighter for posting on his private account on Twitter—now known as X—a picture of a thin blue line flag he mounted on the back of a town fire truck in honor of a fallen police officer in the neighboring town of Chandler, Arizona.
After showing the document, he read aloud a past post by Ms. Berchman on Twitter to Black Lives Matter, in which she said, “We hear you, we stand with you.”
Ms. Berchman also led a push for local first responders to kneel to BLM protesters following the death of George Floyd and posted pictures of it on social media.
Along with Mr. Lavalle, Gilbert residents dominated the public comment session for more than an hour to express their outrage over the actions of the ODG and called for its immediate dismantling.
“Mayor Peterson, we the citizens of Gilbert, are a constitutional republic, not communists,” local resident Catherine Speeks said.
She suggested the town’s administration review the First Amendment and stop “violating town employees’ rights to free speech.”
Monte Lyons, a local resident and Realtor, likened the ODG’s practices to the authoritarian regimes that his family survived in Nazi Germany and he and other members of his family fought against in the military.
“My wife’s family spent time in concentration camps in Germany and died there,” he said. “I’ve heard stories time and again over the holidays about the things that they endure. My sons, myself, my uncles, my grandfather—we all fought against authoritarian regimes in the U.S. military. I’ve seen people die. My family has shed blood for this. It is something I’m very passionate about. Something I have deep feelings about. And I think it needs to be addressed quickly and effectively.”
Steve Berman, who served three terms as Gilbert’s mayor, warned that the town was leaving itself open for a lawsuit if it didn’t abolish the ODG.
“The role of government is to provide our citizens with things they can’t provide for themselves—roads, sewers, fire protection, police protection, garbage pickup, and the like,” Mr. Berman said. “The Office of Digital Government doesn’t do any of those things. It just spies on the community and reports to the city manager.”
In addition to in-person testimony, the issue drew thousands of posts on social media.
The controversy made it to the state level, where a House Republican has called for a civil rights lawsuit against the Gilbert ODG.
Town Councilor Jim Torgeson told local television station AZ News, which did a segment on the controversy, that 20 minutes after posting a survey on his private Facebook page, he got a call from an ODG staff member to take the post down.
“That was amazing to realize they were monitoring my private Facebook posts,” he said.
Joanna Chudzinski, another resident who testified during the recent public meeting session, called the ODG staff “cyberbullies,” saying she found it hypocritical that Ms. Berchman locked down her own X account after having monitored the accounts of others.
According to the Goldwater Institute, Ms. Berchman’s Twitter account was public.