A federal judge has dismissed a civil lawsuit that accused a social media group of violating a former Mart City Council candidate’s rights to free speech and protection under the law.
Presiding U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel signed a dismissal order in U.S. District Court in Austin on Jan. 6 in the lawsuit filed by council candidate Kollin Behrghundi against Mayor Len Williams and the Facebook group called Save Our City.
The lawsuit alleged the online group opposed his candidacy and harmed his business while acting effectively as an arm of city government, since its members included Williams and all five council members of the town of about 2,200 people.
“The judge didn’t agree that SOC’s conduct constituted government action,” said attorney David Schleicher, who represents Behrghundi. “We are still determining whether to appeal the whole case at the federal level, file the remaining Texas Election Code violations portion in state court, or do something else.”
Henry Witt III, former Mayor Pro Tem of Mart and current project manager with the MRB Group firm providing the city with engineering, architecture, development and planning services, was the administrator and operator of the Save Our City group. His attorney, Jim Dunnam, said he was happy with the federal ruling last week.
“We are pleased with the result from the federal court in Austin,” Dunnam said. “I’m not sure what the plaintiff intends to do at this point. My opinion about the lack of merits in the case are the same, and this simply appears to be an attempt to use federal courts to get around the will of the voters expressed at the ballot box, something I don’t believe anyone should condone.”
Witt said he was pleased to see the dismissal as the city of Mart is posed to make improvements moving forward.
“The Mart community is in the best position it has been in for decades,” he said. “A new high school is being built, the city is on the verge of starting construction on a $17 million water system overhaul, and an unprecedented interlocal agreement between Mart and McLennan County was finalized just this week to start rebuilding streets. All of this has been accomplished by our current community leaders and more progress is being made every day.”
The suit alleged the Save Our City group opposed Behrghundi’s candidacy and retaliated against him for playing a role in sharing a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality report on city wastewater treatment violations.
The lawsuit stated the Save Our City group supported four incumbent council members, and group members have falsely claimed Behrghundi is married to a felon.
Other allegations included that City Administrator Kevin Schaffer 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. It also alleged that Williams caused a disturbance at Behrghundi’s business.
With the dismissal, Schleicher said he will continue to consult Behrghundi about their options moving forward.
“Whether by appealing the entire case in federal court, pursuing just the Election Code violations in state court, or reaching an agreement that puts an end to the use of SOC as an unregistered political action committee, we are committed to making sure the citizens of Mart get transparency in government,” he said.