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One Arizona Town Is the Progressive Pioneer of Controlling Online Speech

January 18, 2024

This story was originally published at AZ Free News.

Big Brother is alive and well in one Arizona town, where an entire department of city employees is paid to monitor the online speech of employees and elected officials — as well as control all government communications online — to enforce conformity with a progressive political agenda.

Though it may sound like a fictional invention of Orwellian fashion, there’s a real place in Arizona where that occurs. It’s an arrangement unlike any other in the state and, by all indicators, the first of its kind in the nation. It’s the Office of Digital Government (ODG) in the town of Gilbert.

At the helm is Dana Berchman, chief digital officer. For over a decade, Berchman has overseen an average of 10-12 employees who ensure that the 30 official government accounts—along with personal online postings of government-affiliated individuals—fall in line with a liberal political outlook: Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+ ideologies, and the like.

For their work, ODG employees are amply compensated. Their annual salaries range from over $82,000 to nearly $138,000; only two of the employees make slightly under that range, earning well over $60,000. Berchman receives the highest salary by far: over $200,800 annually.

There were also two employees that left ODG within the 2023 fiscal year: their salaries amounted to about $188,300. Including those positions, all ODG salaries amount to over $1.15 million.

Public records revealed that under Berchman, ODG contacts various departmental leadership about employees’ online speech if it runs counter to progressive ideals or appears to be critical of their department. Leadership is then expected to confront employees about their speech.

Over the last few years of marked social political upheaval due to George Floyd’s death, the 2020 election, and the COVID-19 pandemic, ODG permitted public displays of support for issues like Black Lives Matter (BLM), vaccines, and mask-wearing, but sought out discipline for those whose speech was or appeared to be the least bit critical of those stances — or ODG.

Following George Floyd’s death, ODG led a unified response across all Gilbert departments to show solidarity with BLM: “blackout” posts, a video statement from the mayor, and pictures of first responders bending the knee to BLM protesters.

One former employee that we spoke with on the condition of anonymity said that they left their job in part due to ODG’s control over the other departments.

“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,” said the former employee.

That former employee added that anything a department wanted to put out on social media had to receive ODG’s complete approval.

“It was difficult to get anything accomplished,” said the former employee. “Everything was so tightly managed. People on the ground there were upset because they couldn’t do anything.”

That could explain the delay in communications on the arguably biggest development to hit Gilbert in decades, one that has now made national headlines: the Gilbert Goons.

Independent investigative efforts by reporters indicated that similar teen-involved assaults in the East Valley go back as early as December 2022; Gilbert police initially claimed that they only discovered a pattern and the term “Gilbert Goons” last month, but later noted that victims referenced their assailants’ association with the violent group.

Other issues have sparked more immediate attention from Gilbert leadership. Public records revealed that departmental leadership would entertain ODG’s complaints about certain employees’ online speech to which they objected, such as a show of support for first responders.

In an August 2020 email obtained through public records, Berchman notified Gilbert Fire Department (GFD) leadership that one of their fire trucks drove by and turned on sirens to support Back the Blue protesters.

The implication was that GFD leadership would instruct its employees to not engage in similar behavior in the future, as they have regarding the displays of thin blue line flags symbolizing support for police. Gilbert fire and police leadership instructed personnel to not fly those flags due to their controversial message related to George Floyd’s death and the BLM riots.

Several days after Berchman’s complaint, Police Chief Michael Soelberg and then-Fire Chief Jim Jobusch issued a joint email and video to their employees directing them to not “choose sides” publicly concerning Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter protests.

“Given the intensity of the debate and strong personal feelings some have about these gatherings, [we] thought it would be prudent to put out a consistent message to the members of both of our departments,” read a joint email notifying personnel of the video.

“We need to be aware not to choose sides and to not leave the perception that we’re choosing sides during large gatherings,” said Jobusch in the video.

Records also revealed that ODG would spend business hours documenting the nitty gritty of Gilbert employees’ social media activity, even down to when they “liked” posts critical of ODG. In another 2020 incident, ODG issued a post to the town’s Twitter (now X) page celebrating itself for winning an award. In an internal messaging group between team members, ODG discussed one employee who “liked” another local’s comment criticizing ODG as a “bloated team of Insta posters” funded by taxpayers.

“Yeah [this individual] has had a few bad tweets and likes the past 24 hours,” one ODG employee wrote in a group message.

The same day of the Jan. 6 breach at the Capitol, Berchman sent an internal group message tasking her employees with hunting down and tracking the personal social media posts of one town employee critical of them. In that same conversation, Berchman alluded that she maintained a dossier of other town employees’ social media posts.

“Do you all have a folder or compilation of all of [this employee’s] tweets? Or posts?” asked Berchman. “I just looked in my social media files and I had most of these [posts other ODG members sent]. It makes me sick to look at these [posts] especially TODAY.”

Yet, Berchman’s personal social media often delves into the political. Her posts over the years openly declared her support of Democratic candidates and progressive issues such as abortion, gun control, and same-sex marriage.

“A bunch of old white guys? Not interested,” wrote Berchman, in response to former President Trump’s potential cabinet selections.

“Today I feel hope, joy, and relief. To those who thought it couldn’t be that bad — it was worse than I ever imagined,” said Berchman on President Joe Biden’s inauguration day. “Watching the past four years and particularly the last one and explaining to my children the things they’ve seen and heard. Never again.”

“Every single word of this – especially ‘coming to grips with the reality that millions voted for a man so obviously willing to burn our democracy down for his own ego,’” said Berchman.

“Oh no,” said Berchman, in response to a 2016 report calling Maricopa County the “Trumpiest county” in the country.

Berchman reposted controversial tweets from then-presidential candidate Joe Biden urging people to vote out then-President Donald Trump, then a post from Biden announcing a mask mandate. Berchman also shared a post blaming parents for school shutdowns over COVID-19 case spikes.

Berchman was behind the new town logo that stoked controversy last year, with many left dissatisfied with the end product of a two-year process. Both Mayor Brigette Peterson and council noted they were kept out of the process for developing the logo, with Peterson receiving resistance from town manager Patrick Banger: a common pattern for ODG.

Public records revealed that those town employees who criticized the logo were the subject of ODG documentation and internal messaging.

This appeared to be a frequent exercise for Berchman and her ODG members, though relatively new for the department.

ODG didn’t exist until 2012, when Banger came up with the idea for the department: the first of its kind in the nation. Banger credited former Democratic New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his media empire for coming up with the idea. The year before, Bloomberg hired the nation’s first chief digital officer, Rachel Haot, and together they crafted the nation’s first digital roadmap.

“One of the things that I’d been doing for quite some time is following what Mayor Bloomberg was doing in New York,” said Banger in an early episode of the town’s now-defunct podcast, Government Gone Digital.

Haot’s oversight of online governmental communications resembled the centralized approach that ODG has undertaken. Haot identified her team as the authority on what was published online across city departments, in one interview using Hurricane Sandy as an example.

“24/7 we were working to ensure that all of those channels were working in lockstep,” said Haot. “Say the public housing agency had a new update they needed to get out to their constituents — we had a streamlined process to make sure the information was accurate and could get out there as soon as possible.”

Bloomberg is the liberal billionaire behind the nonprofit Bloomberg Philanthropies. What Works Cities (WWC) is a project of the nonprofit; Gilbert joined them in 2017. WWC’s Results for America awarded ODG in 2020 for public communications that facilitated community trust during COVID-19. Then-WWC Executive Director Simone Brody remarked that ODG exemplified the ideal approach for government communications.

“This recognition honors her life by celebrating cities like Gilbert that exemplify how governments and residents can collaborate to build a better future for us all.”

The following year, 2021, Brody became the senior advisor of Biden’s American Rescue Plan Implementation Team. The primary focus of the team was to ensure the trillions in federal relief funds were issued equitably, not equally.

Banger hired Berchman, a Gilbert native, in 2012. Like his inspiration, Berchman launched her career in New York, where she interned for Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign before working for MTV and then MSNBC.

By 2017, ODG had gained significant control over which departments could have social media platforms and what they could share. In the town’s podcast, Berchman explained that ODG had centralized oversight but would give “social media ambassadors” the ability to post and share.

“We don’t just give every [department] a Facebook account because they want one. Who’s going to run it? What are you going to put there? Are you going to have someone monitor it 24/7?” said Berchman.

It wasn’t until 2019 that ODG revoked that limited autonomy and fully took over communications for every department. Berchman discussed the plan in the town’s podcast, in an episode that described the approach as “building the city of the future.”

“We are going to have a truly centralized communications team, we’re going to have people embedded in the other departments: parks and recreation, police, and fire, which is what’s really unique about this, I think, and economic development,” said Berchman. “It is important for us to be streamlined, all on message together, all on brand.”

That year, for the first time, Gilbert’s social media pages issued a post celebrating Pride Month.

Public records indicate that 2019 was also the year that ODG began ramping up oversight of employee’s personal social media content.

Kelsey Perry — then ODG’s community engagement coordinator, now a public information officer — sent an internal message that August flagging the personal Instagram story of a town employee that “could be deemed culturally insensitive.” The video was passed on from ODG leadership to that employee’s superiors.

In a recent interview, Berchman alluded to her limiting input to those who agree with her perspective, calling those who have grievances “pitchfork people” that didn’t qualify as the average Gilbert resident.

“Let other people come in, invite them in and let them tell you what they think about what you’re doing,” said Berchman. “Not people that show up at council meetings or, I say, the pitchfork people that have a grievance, but the average person who’s busy living their lives.”

Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News.

 

 

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