Fresno County foots $72K to councilmen’s legal fees

Fresno City Councilmen Bredefeld, Chavez prevail in lawsuit with county over campaign finance dispute

Fresno County Courthouse located at 1100 Van Ness in Fresno. (Kenny Goodman)
Fresno County Courthouse located at 1100 Van Ness in Fresno. (Kenny Goodman)
Darren Fraser
Published March 19, 2024  • 
12:00 pm

FRESNO COUNTY – Fresno County must pay two Fresno City Councilmen – who are running for the Fresno County Board of Supervisors (Board) – more than $72,000 in legal fees. This is stemming from a lawsuit the county filed last year, which claimed that Garry Bredefeld and Luis Chavez violated a county ordinance that sets limits on campaign contributions.

Last year, Bredefeld and Chavez announced they were transferring money from their respective City Council finance committees to their Board of Supervisors campaigns. In response, the county filed suit in Fresno County Superior Court, claiming the action violated Fresno County Ordinance Code § 2.62.040(d). 

This ordinance was included in the Fresno County Election Campaign Contributions Ordinance the Board passed on Aug. 18, 2020, and set a limit of $30,000 on contributions to candidates seeking county office.

In his Oct. 20, 2023 decision, Superior Court Judge Jonathan Skiles said the issue concerned free speech as defined under the First Amendment. Skiles said that intra-candidate transfers, such as the ones Bredefeld and Chavez proposed, are not campaign contributions in the eyes of the law.

“As such, they (intra-candidate transfers) are viewed under the First Amendment as political speech,” Skiles wrote in his decision. “Political speech is afforded the highest level of constitutional protection and any infringement on it is subject to strict scrutiny.”

On March 7, Skiles ruled that the county must pay Bredefeld and Chavez $72,709 in legal fees. County Counsel Daniel C. Cederborg said the county is still considering whether or not to appeal Skiles’ decision.

Bredefeld and Chavez spoke to GV Wire following Skiles’ ruling. For his comments, Bredefeld slammed the Board for bringing the lawsuit.

“We fought back and won,” said Bredefeld. “They wasted hundreds of taxpayer dollars by hiring a high-priced law firm, using county attorneys and forcing us to defend against their reckless legal scheme. These Supervisors owe their constituents an apology and should personally reimburse the taxpayers.”

Chavez echoed Bredefeld’s sentiments.

“The lawsuit by the Board to unconstitutionally prohibit challengers from utilizing their campaign funds, while simultaneously exempting themselves was a dangerous incumbent protection scheme, and I’m happy the judge saw through that,” said Chavez.

Bredefeld is challenging incumbent Steve Brandau for the District 2 seat on the Board. Bredefeld was the top vote-getter in the March 5 primary, followed by Brandau. The two men will square off in the November general election runoff.

In the District 3 race, incumbent Sal Quintero garnered the most votes in the March primary. Chavez came in second, which means the two will meet again in November.

LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD

Skiles likened three of the four arguments the county put forth in its October lawsuit as attempts to create a level playing field for county elections.

In these three arguments, the county argued that restricting intra-candidate transfers protects voters and the public interest by swaying county elections with large injections of money. The county argued that such limits ensure that funds raised by candidates did not come from a majority of non-county donors. 

Lastly, the county argued that “providing a contribution limit constitutes a significant portion of the average amount spent by prior candidates to run a competitive campaign in previous county races.”

In his rebuttal to these arguments, issued what could be a referendum on the state of political campaigns everywhere, Skiles wrote, “Politics has never provided a level playing field. A billionaire can spend millions on a campaign while a candidate earning minimum wage may be unable to buy a single advertisement. The First Amendment’s protection of political speech is not dependent on a person’s financial ability to engage in public discourse.”

Darren Fraser
Reporter