Fresno County loses again; must pay legal fees for lawsuit against City Council members

Fresno County has been ordered to pay more than $72,000 in legal fees to two Fresno City Council members for their defense against the county’s unsuccessful lawsuit over campaign finance issues.

The county last year sued Councilmembers Garry Bredefeld and Luis Chavez, both candidates for the county’s Board of Supervisors, after the pair announced their intentions to transfer money from their City Council campaign finance committees to their Board of Supervisors campaigns.

The lawsuit was based on a 2020 ordinance that put a $30,000 cap on transfers or contributions from a candidate’s campaign account for non-county elective offices into their campaign for county offices — including the county Board of Supervisors.

Fresno County Superior Court Judge Jon Skiles ruled in favor of Bredefeld and Chavez in October, finding that the county’s ordinance was unconstitutional in how it was applied. In a ruling last week, Skiles ordered the county to pay the two council members $72,709 in attorney fees. The pair were represented in the case by Sacramento attorney Brian Hildreth.

In a prepared statement, the county said it “is still considering whether to appeal the fee award or not.”

In his March 7 ruling, Skiles said the amount, while less than what Bredefeld and Chavez were seeking, “adequately compensates for the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved” in the case.

The ruling came two days following the March 5 primary election in which Bredefeld was the top vote-getter in a five-person field to represent northeast and northwest Fresno in the District 2 seat on the Board of Supervisors, earning a spot in a November general election runoff against incumbent Supervisor Steve Brandau. Chavez won a place in a two-person runoff by finishing second to incumbent District 3 Supervisor Sal Quintero out of a field of four candidates.

Throughout the lawsuit, Bredefeld had criticized the county’s ordinance as an “incumbent protection scheme” and Chavez described the case as “a witch hunt” because the ordinance did not apply to incumbent Fresno County officeholders

While Bredefeld and Chavez were named as defendants in the lawsuit, Fresno County Counsel Daniel Cederborg said following the October ruling that “this lawsuit did not target individuals but was an attempt to settle conflicting questions” on the issue of campaign transfers.

But in his ruling to award attorney fees, Skiles noted that the county argued that the two council members were the only individuals affected by the ordinance in question and the only people to benefit from the judgment in the lawsuit. Bredefeld and Chavez, however, said their defense against the lawsuit served to protect not only their rights to free speech, but also those of future county candidates.

“The constitutionality of (the county ordinance), as applied to intra-campaign transfers, was the question before the court,” Skiles wrote. “Although fundamental constitutional rights are by nature individual rights, their enforcement benefits the entire public.”

“The posture in this case was the County seeking clarification of whether it could proceed with enforcement of its ordinance, ‘to avoid violations of the ordinances and to provide the public, the county and all potential candidates for County elective office with clear guidance (on the ordinance) to avoid any uncertainty or unfairness in the upcoming 2024 elections,’” Skiles wrote, quoting from the county’s lawsuit against Bredefeld and Chavez.

Skiles added that the defense against the lawsuit “resulted in the enforcement of free speech, constituting a significant benefit to the general public.”