What's at stake?
Some candidates say a 2020 Fresno County campaign contribution rule on contribution limits unfairly protects incumbents.
Two would-be challengers eyeing Board of Supervisor seats say they’re going to ignore a recent legal statement from Fresno County because they say it was intended to protect the incumbents.
The feuding started on Twitter last week — just days after Fresno City Councilmembers Garry Bredefeld and Luis Chavez announced their candidacies for the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.
Bredefeld, who currently represents City Council District 6 in northeast Fresno, announced he’d be running to represent the Board of Supervisors District 2, which covers part of Clovis and northwest Fresno. He’s taking on incumbent Steve Brandau, who’s seeking re-election in March 2024.
Chavez, who represents District 5 in south Fresno, is vying for the position of his former boss, Supervisor Sal Quintero, whose current District 3 county seat encompasses much of central and southeast Fresno, as well as the community of Calwa. Quintero will also seek re-election in 2024.
County election rules say the city council candidates can’t transfer their council campaign funds to their supervisor campaign fund accounts.
But in a phone interview with The Bee/Fresnoland on Friday, Chavez said, he’s “going to be moving forward and moving all of my $110,000 from my council account to my supervisor account.”
This would put Chavez well ahead of his competition, incumbent Quintero, whose latest campaign finance filings show he has $74,498 on hand.
Chavez claimed legal counsel have affirmed they’re in the right.
“We feel very comfortable with the (legal) opinion that we got,” Chavez said. “It was based on state law. It was based on FPPC (Fair Political Practices Commission) statutes and it was based on our own legal counsel’s interpretation.”
In an email statement to The Bee/Fresnoland on Friday, Bredefeld also doubled down on the comments he initially made on Twitter, that “The County is trying to protect the incumbent I’m running against by enacting this ‘Incumbent Protection Plan.’”
Bredefeld, like Chavez, said he plans on transferring all but $5,000 of the $228,000 in his city council account. Brandau, meanwhile, has $173,619 according to the most recent campaign finance filings.
“State law and FPPC guidelines allow for the transfer of all individual contributions from a City Council account to a Supervisor account as long as it doesn’t exceed their contribution limit and none of mine do,” Bredefeld said. “This is nothing more than an effort to protect the incumbent from facing serious opposition and keeping the status quo. It’s not going to work.”
Fresno County campaign contribution rules
Fresno County officials weighed in on this debate – responding to what they called “incorrect and incomplete information about the County’s campaign contribution ordinance” in a Tweet on Thursday afternoon.
County Administrative Officer Paul Nerland issued a statement via Fresno County’s Twitter account explaining that the county adopted its campaign contribution ordinance in 2020, creating a contribution limit of $30,000 “per person” for County elected officials.
Cities and counties were allowed to set their own campaign contribution limits before a 2019 state law, which took effect in 2021, set default campaign contribution limits for city and county candidates at $4,900 per election.
According to an FPPC fact sheet on the state law, beginning Jan. 1, 2021, “candidates may transfer non-surplus campaign funds from one candidate-controlled committee to another committee controlled by the same candidate for a different office if the committee receiving the transfer is for an elective state, county or city office.”
However, this provision doesn’t apply to cities or counties – such as Fresno County – that have already enacted campaign contribution limits. Fresno County implemented its ordinance in 2020.
This means that Bredefeld and Chavez can only transfer $30,000 from their city council campaign accounts to their county campaign accounts.
In a phone interview with The Bee/Fresnoland on Monday, Brandau didn’t comment on whether the county’s ordinance was designed to protect incumbents, but defended the county’s campaign ordinance.
“The county,” he said, “was just trying to comply with the new state law and that…was the policy that we came up with.”
“According to our county counsel,” Brandau said, “we’re in compliance (with FPPC guidance).”
City has different take on transfers
Chavez and Bredefeld dispute the county’s interpretation of whether they can transfer campaign committee funds from city to county accounts.
“We have a legal opinion that says otherwise,” Chavez said in an interview with The Bee/Fresnoland on Friday afternoon.
On Feb. 9, the same day the county issued their statement, Fresno City Attorney Andrew Janz issued a memo to Fresno City Councilmembers on city of Fresno election law frequently asked questions.
In the FAQ memo section on fund transfers, Janz says that the “it is the opinion of the City Attorney that funds may be transferred from a City campaign account to a Fresno County campaign account that belong to the same candidate in a “first in, first out” method of accounting.
The memo points out, however, that this FAQ is not a campaign document and that the “City Attorney’s Office does not provide legal advice to candidates concerning state or federal law, but may offer clarifications of applicable City election laws.”
“Their interpretation is that it’s a committee-to-committee (transfer) and it’s not,” Chavez said, “it’s individual donations that are being transferred over to the supervisor and county committee.”
Even city councilmembers on the sidelines chimed in.
Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias, who is not running for a county seat, started the Twitter dispute on Thursday morning, saying the county’s “Incumbent Protection Act” ensures current supervisors “keep their highly paid positions” without threat of challenge from City of Fresno leaders.
In an interview with The Bee/Fresnoland on Friday, he said the county’s “interpreting the transfer of 50 individual donations as one donation.”
He’s pointing to a discrepancy in how the county versus the city define individual “people.” Per the city’s rules, a contribution from one person is capped at $4,900, whereas a “small contributor committee” may contribute up to $9,700 per election.
The county, on the other hand, doesn’t make this distinction.
Fresno County’s campaign contribution ordinance broadly defines a “person” as “an individual, proprietorship, firm, partnership, joint venture, syndicate, business trust, company, corporation, limited liability company, association, committee, labor union or organization, and any other organization or group of persons acting in concert,” according to records on file with the FPPC.
“This broad definition of ‘Person’ in the County’s ordinance would bar contributions in excess of the limit from other campaign committees,” Nerland said.
As for the incumbents, Chavez alluded to some irony in their plans to roll over funds from a previous campaign for supervisor into their current campaigns.
“For example, when Sal Quintero transferred his money from 2020 to 2024,” Chavez said. “By their interpretation that would essentially be a new committee.”
While not responding to that particular allegation, in a phone interview with The Bee/Fresnoland on Monday, Quintero said it’s up to the challengers to do what they want to do and that he will follow whatever guidance the county counsel provides about transferring campaign finances between accounts.
“We’re still doing a bit of due diligence on the contribution issue,” he said.
Setting a new policy without a public vote?
One issue that critics point out is that Fresno County’s contribution ordinance doesn’t distinguish between contributions and committee fund transfers. According to the Janz memo, Fresno County’s rules only limit “contribution(s)” to County committees and that the County is “silent” on the issue of transfers.
Arias says the County’s announcement last week set new precedent.
“They’re doing so without taking a public vote on that new policy,” he said. “So, the following year after their election is over, they can simply interpret it the other way.”
The Bee/Fresnoland reached out to Fresno County spokesperson Sonja Dosti for response. She declined to take question and referred tto he County’s original statement.
‘Too early’ for legal recourse
It’s unclear what, if anything, the incumbents can do to combat this.
Contributions in excess of the county ordinance limits, however, could result in a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to one thousand dollars or imprisonment for up to six months, or both, per the county’s ordinance.
Neither incumbent responded to questions about whether they would consider legal action.
“It’s too early,” Quintero said. “I was told there will be another briefing from our county counsel. Then we’ll see what the options are at that time.”
“We’ll look to see if the FPPC weighs in,” Brandau said.
Jay Wierenga, communications director of the FPPC, declined to comment on this story due to the potential legal dispute between jurisdictions.