A legal win for Fresno City Councilmembers Garry Bredefeld and Luis Chavez means they’ll have the ability to move their campaign funds to their races for the County Board of Supervisors.
Fresno Superior Court Judge Jonathan Skiles ruled Friday against Fresno County’s campaign fundraising law limiting the amount a candidate for supervisor can transfer from another fund.
The county limited transfers to $30,000, whereas incumbents had no limits on money from previous campaigns.
Bredefeld and Chavez challenged the law. And, in response to both candidates saying they would defy the law, the county in March decided to sue the two councilmembers.
Bredefeld moved his $220,000 campaign war chest months ahead of the ruling.
“It was a complete victory for me,” Bredefeld said. “The judge ruled that the ban that the county board of supervisors tried to do was unconstitutional, we knew that from the very beginning. This is a complete misuse of taxpayer money using county lawyers.”
Chavez said with the ruling, he would now transfer the funds.
“I am grateful for Judge Skiles’ ruling on this irresponsible lawsuit against Councilman Bredefeld,” Chavez said. “It is a dangerous precedent when government officials use their power and position and taxpayer dollars to weaponize the county’s legal department for blatant political purposes.”
Chavez is running for the District 3 seat — covering much of south Fresno and surrounding communities — against incumbent Sal Quintero, fellow Fresno City Councilman Miguel Arias, and educator EJ Hinojosa.
Bredefeld is running for the District 2 seat — covering much of north Fresno and part of Clovis — against incumbent Steve Brandau and Fresno County Assessor Paul Dictos.
County Campaign Fund Law a Violation of Free Speech: Judge Skiles
Skiles ruled that the campaign fund law violated free speech, according to a release from Fresno City Attorney Andrew Janz. The trial lasted the afternoon.
Janz’ office filed an amicus brief last week highlighting legal issues with the county’s lawsuit.
“Although the Court did not rely on our brief in reaching its ruling, the Court’s oral decision was nearly identical to our position in our moving papers,” Janz said in a statement. “It was clear from the very beginning that the County’s position violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
Courts have consistently ruled that campaign contributions are an exercise of free speech in an election.
“They were trying to limit the freedom of speech,” Bredefeld said. “When you have donors who donate to you, contribute, they are supporting you as a candidate and they’re encouraging your effort to speak about issues and the important things going on in the community.”
Bredefeld called on supervisors to reimburse the county for legal fees on the lawsuit.
A call made to Brandau seeking comment was not immediately returned, and Quintero declined to comment.
County Says Ruling Doesn’t Stop Campaign Finance Ordinance
In a statement, county public information officer Sonja Dosti said the judge’s narrow ruling doesn’t apply to the ordinance as a whole.
“The court was not ruling any part of the County’s ordinance unconstitutional as written,” Dosti said in a email to GV Wire. “The ordinance is still fully in effect. That said, the judge found that the County’s limit could not be applied to the narrow circumstances involving intra-candidate transfers of funds from old campaign accounts.”
Dosti said the county disagrees with Skiles’ ruling and will consider its options with respect to appeal.
“The County of Fresno filed this lawsuit to determine if it complied with state law AB 571 that allowed limits to be placed on transfer from candidates’ accounts outside of County offices,” Dosti said. “This lawsuit did not target individuals, but was an attempt to settle conflicting questions on the matter.”