A candidate in the May 4 Mart City Council election has sued a group organized on Facebook that he claims is acting as a de facto extension of the city and violating his constitutional rights by opposing his candidacy and harming his business.
In a lawsuit filed U.S. District Court in Austin on Wednesday, council candidate Kollin Behrghundi alleges the Save Our City group has violated his rights to free speech and equal protection under the law. Waco attorney David Schleicher said he filed the lawsuit outside Waco because of the “highly contentious local political disputes.”
The suit alleges the Save Our City group’s opposition to Behrghundi’s candidacy and its retaliation against him for playing a role in sharing a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality report on city wastewater treatment violations, among other alleged actions by the group, are improper because it is essentially an arm of the city.
The suit includes an image of the group’s “about” page on Facebook listing Mayor Len Williams and all five council members as involved in the group.
“When you are essentially the government, you don’t get to destroy someone else’s business because they disagree with you,” Schleicher said.
The group has regularly placed political ads in the Mart Messenger newspaper supporting four incumbent council members, according to he lawsuit. Members have falsely claimed Behrghundi is married to a felon; City Administrator Kevin Schaffer, who is involved in the group, falsely told Behrghundi he was ineligible to run for a city council seat because he had not been registered to vote in Mart long enough; and Williams caused a disturbance at Behrghundi’s business, the suit alleges.
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Witt now lives in Robinson but serves as Chief Planning Officer and a consultant for Mart on a major overhaul of its water system that is set to start soon.
He said he could speak for himself but not for the city.
“The ‘Save Our City’ group isn’t a group where we have membership forms, and we aren’t an official group,” Witt said. “We are just a group of like-minded community members who want to make a positive impact on Mart.”
He said he is the administrator of the group’s Facebook page and that Councilman Zac Byrd and Councilwoman Haley Pankonien act as moderators.
Williams does not have access to manage the group’s Facebook page, Witt said.
The lawsuit claims that, in addition to Witt, city staff members believed to be involved in the group also include Schaffer and Public Works Director Steven Smith.
It claims the group has violated Behrghundi’s right to equal protection under the law by treating him less favorably than other “similarly situated” council candidates.
“For example, other candidates that have not disclosed wrongdoing by city officials/staff have not had their businesses vandalized, had city officials (and possibly city staff) discourage citizens from patronizing their businesses, had their spouses falsely identified as being convicted felons, had the school district refuse to undertake partnerships with them that would benefit the district, nor had the Mayor create a scene in a manner disrupting their business operations,” the suit states.
The group’s primary purpose is to have members elected to city council, according to the suit.
“SOC at other times provides a vehicle for good people to accomplish positive things in the town,” it states. “But it also serves as a shadow city government, coordinating efforts to keep out those who would open local government to greater transparency and disclose city wrongdoing.”
Behrghundi is asking the court to find that the group has violated his rights and to order it to stop doing so.
He is also seeking unspecified compensation for damage to his business.
Witt said he had not been served with the lawsuit on Thursday.
Mart City Attorney Charles Buenger said he does not represent the Save Our City group that he has no comment on behalf of the city.
Williams and Schaffer did not return calls seeking comment.