A group of Tempe activists, mostly Hispanic, were told they violated election laws by circulating a letter accusing mayoral candidate Dennis Cahill of turning a blind eye to the discrimination of workers in the city’s public works department.
Now an attorney has sent a letter to the city, accusing it of trying to censor free speech.
The letter, "The Discrimination Stops Now," was given to Gov. Janet Napolitano during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration Saturday in Tempe after the group gathered 30 signatures. It endorsed Hugh Hallman for mayor.
Activist Arnold Ruiz, 63, who drafted the letter, was told Monday by the city clerk to register his group with the city. The group has no name.
"We’re not an organized group," Ruiz said, "If anything, we’re highly disorganized."
The city clerk disputes his claim.
Kathy Matz said that anytime a group assembles to promote a candidate or influence an election, they must register with the city.
Although no complaints were registered with her office, Matz said the city acts proactively to inform its citizens if they are violating election the law.
She decided to contact Ruiz after reading an article in Saturday’s Tribune about the public protest.
"I was just trying to make him aware of the campaign laws and his responsibility," Matz said.
The city can fine political action committees $10 for each day they refuse to register, Matz said. After 15 days, the fines climb to $25 a day.
Joseph Kanefield, the State Election Director, said money usually defines whether a group constitutes a political action committee.
"When money is raised or expenditures incurred, those parties have an obligation to register," Kanefield said.
But Tim Casey, an elections law attorney representing Ruiz, said the group never raised or spent money.
In a letter sent Wednesday to the city clerk’s office, Casey states that Ruiz "has a fundamental and largely unrestrained right under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution to express his views, and to ask other like-minded citizens to join in the expression of such views."
Casey called the government’s action an attempt to censor free speech.
"This is, if not intimidation, it is a heavy-handed approach that is inappropriate for government," Casey said.
Mayor Neil Giuliano refuted accusations that Tempe attempted to intimidated Ruiz, saying the city clerk acted in Ruiz’s best interest.
The outgoing mayor said Tempe has an obligation to inform its voters and activists if they violate campaign laws.
"Notification is not harassment," Giuliano said.
He went on to say the issue has been politicized, accusing Hallman of orchestrating a behind-the-scenes effort.
"This is something that Hallman would be behind," Giuliano said.
Hallman denied having a hand in the issue, saying Ruiz and others involved in crafting the letter acted on their own.
"It sounds like the mayor is trying to deflect criticism from something going on at City Hall," Hallman said. "He perhaps does not know Mr. Ruiz and the other independent people who have raised the issue."
It was the second time in as many days that Giuliano levied criticisms against the former councilman. Giuliano on Tuesday endorsed Cahill.