An Austin City Council member is suing the city of Austin, claiming its restrictions on campaign contributions and rollover campaign funds are arbitrary and unjustifiable.
District 6 Councilmember Don Zimmerman, who was chosen at random to serve a two-year rather than a four-year term on City Council, is running for re-election, according to the suit. The next City Council election is scheduled for Nov. 8, 2016.
In a lawsuit filed July 28 in a U.S. District Court, Zimmerman claims he should legally be allowed to start fundraising immediately, and the city has no right to impose limits on donations to Zimmerman’s campaign that come from individuals and associations that cannot vote in city elections, such as nonresidents or individuals who are not registered to vote.Read more
Zimmerman asks the court to prohibit these limitations and take away the city’s requirement that council candidates dissolve their campaign funds between elections.
Zimmerman’s attorney, Jerad Wayne Najvar of Najvar Law Firm in Houston, penned the lawsuit, in which he called the city’s financial campaign regulations an infringement on Zimmerman’s First Amendment freedoms of speech and association.
Austin caps campaign contributions from individuals at $350, and no lobbyist or spouse of a candidate may donate more than $25. Individuals and organizations that are ineligible to vote cannot contribute more than $36,000 combined to a City Council candidate’s campaign, according to the Austin charter.
Zimmerman does not want to devote resources to keeping track of whether each contributor is eligible to vote, Najvar wrote. He also stated the $36,000 limit is discriminatory against entities, nonresidents and those residents who cannot vote.
The city also bans fundraising until 180 days before an election. Zimmerman cannot legally begin fundraising for his campaign until May 12, 2016, Najvar wrote.
“Zimmerman does not have the personal resources to fund his own campaign,” Najvar wrote. The “blackout period” discriminates against candidates who are not wealthy, he continued.
“Wealthy candidates can begin campaigning as early as they want with their own money,” Najvar wrote.
The city also requires that candidates get rid of any leftover campaign funds 90 days after an election by either returning them to contributors, donating them to charity or giving them to the Austin Fair Campaign Fund. Candidates who win the election can retail $20,000 in leftover funds to spend on certain office-related costs, but not on their own campaign, Najvar wrote.
Najvar called this dissolution requirement unconstitutional and a burden to Zimmerman’s free speech rights.
Najvar concluded the court should prevent the city from enforcing the blackout period, the limit on campaign contributions from sources ineligible to vote and the requirement to dissolve previous campaign funds.
In a news release, Zimmerman said the city’s regulations stifle his ability to communicate with his constituents.
“The media, my opponents and outside groups can all spend whatever they want on a political assault, and I am left with both hands tied by city rules,” he said.
Austin resident Mark Walters has filed two ethics complaints with the city against Zimmerman. A July 27 complaint accuses Zimmerman of failing to fill out certain campaign finance forms; a June 27 complaint said Zimmerman violated the city’s personnel policy and used city resources to make disparaging remarks.
The June 27 complaint was filed after Zimmerman compared homosexuality to pedophilia on Facebook.
According to the new release, Zimmerman is awaiting a hearing date for the case.