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McFarland sued again over decision to open two immigrant detention centers within city

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Protesters gather outside a McFarland Planning Commission meeting in February, opposing a plan to expand immigration detention capabilities in the city.

The city of McFarland has been hit with another lawsuit related to its April decision to allow two former state prisons to be converted into immigrant detention centers.

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California, along with attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan, filed a lawsuit in Kern County Superior Court on Monday, alleging McFarland violated California’s open meeting law and the state constitution by limiting public participation at two City Council meetings in April.

ACLU Attorney Stephanie Padilla and two unidentified women who had difficulty participating in the two meetings are the plaintiffs in the case. The two women, who are residents of McFarland, said they in legal documents did not want to reveal their identities out of fear they would be subjected to retaliation by government officials.

In the legal complaint, the women describe their efforts to attend via telephone and Zoom City Council meetings on April 9 and April 23, only to be rebuffed multiple times.

The April 9 meeting was “plagued with technical difficulties,” according to the complaint. The meeting was only available to the public over the telephone, and one of the women said in the lawsuit she tried to call in many times, only to have her calls dropped. Another could not understand the meeting due to the lack of Spanish translation.

On April 23, when the meeting was available over Zoom, a cap of 100 participants was enacted by the city, leading many in the public to be excluded. Padilla said in the complaint she was given the message “This meeting is full. Goodbye” when she tried to join.

When Mayor Sally Gonzalez was told of the cap, she said there was no reason to stop the meeting because the City Council chambers are too small to hold 100 people, according to the complaint.

Nevertheless, the ACLU says the city has accommodated overflow crowds in the past.

“While technology can be a tool to ensure wider government transparency, in the middle of a pandemic McFarland used technology to do just the opposite,” Julia Gomez, staff attorney at the ACLU, said in a statement. “A pandemic, however, does not void Californians’ right to attend, observe, and provide comment during the meetings of their public bodies, and we are confident that the court will agree.”

McFarland City Manager Maria Lara did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This is the second time the city of McFarland has been sued over its decision to allow private prison company GEO Group Inc. to run two detention centers for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the city.

Two immigrant advocacy organizations, Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Freedom For Immigrants, have sued both GEO and the city, claiming the meetings in which the city discussed allowing the detention centers violated the Dignity Not Detention Act, a state law that intends to limit immigrant detention in California.

Filed in the U.S. Eastern District Court of California, a federal judge has temporarily blocked GEO from opening the facilities as the matter is settled in court.

The ACLU’s lawsuit is scheduled to move through the local courts later this year and into the next.

“The McFarland City Council knowingly violated the public's rights when it prevented interested people from participating in decisions vital to the public welfare,” Boylan said. “I have no doubt the court will invalidate the city's unlawful acts."

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.