RICHMOND -- The beverage industry-funded campaign against a local ballot measure has sued the city in federal court, arguing that Richmond's campaign-disclosure laws targeting special interest groups violate the First Amendment.
The suit, filed in federal court in San Francisco on Aug. 30, seeks an order barring the city from imposing its campaign ordinance on the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, a declaration that the groups' First Amendment rights were violated and money to cover court costs.
The coalition is funded mostly by the American Beverage Association, and has spent more than $350,000 locally in an effort to defeat a November ballot measure that could impose a penny-per-ounce tax on sales of all sugar-sweetened beverages in the city.
"Plaintiffs urgently seek this court's protection from the city of Richmond's threat," reads the lawsuit, filed by Christopher Skinnell of Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni LLP, "to 'strictly enforce' against them an inapplicable and unconstitutional ordinance that would impair their efforts to speak in opposition to a controversial ballot measure proposed by Richmond's mayor and City Council."
The ordinance, passed unanimously by the council in June, requires all mass mailings be accompanied by the words "Major funding by," followed by the five largest contributors, with the information on the "front page" of all distributed material.
Councilman Tom Butt wrote
"The purpose of the ordinance, of course, is to clearly inform voters who is behind political campaigns that are intentionally disguised as grass roots local efforts," Butt wrote. "Big Soda will spend over a million dollars in Richmond while trying to make it look like a down home campaign featuring local spokespersons, businesses and organizations."
The anti-tax campaign committee responded to the city's orders to comply by filing suit.
Coalition spokesman Chuck Finnie said Tuesday that the law itself is unconstitutional, and should not be applied to the anti-soda tax groups.
"The law in question is being enforced to prevent opponents of an unfair, misleading and misguided tax from being able to communicate effectively with Richmond voters," Finnie said. "The sponsors of the Measure N tax don't want voters to hear how the tax is going to raise grocery bills, hurt local businesses on which livelihoods depend, and the fact that city politicians would be free to spend all of the money raised by Measure N in any way they see fit and that not one penny must be used to fund anti-obesity efforts."
Measure N, the name for the 1-cent-per ounce tax, has a companion measure that advises future councils to use tax proceeds on sports and anti-obesity programs. Richmond has the highest rate of childhood obesity in Contra Costa County.
The tax, which would be paid by merchants based on how many ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages they sell, would generate an estimated $3 million annually. Opponents say it would hurt the poor and businesses and do little to curb consumption of sugary drinks.
City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller wrote in an internal city email that "we are working ... to prepare the city's initial response to the lawsuit due Wednesday at 3 p.m."
The hearing on the motion is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.