Advocates say McFarland’s plan to fill vacant seat at City Council meeting during COVID-19 pandemic is an attempt to rush GEO appeal hearing

March 20, 2020 /

The McFarland City Council plans to appoint an individual to fill a vacancy on the council at its next City Council meeting, despite a statewide order made Thursday by the Governor of California for people to stay home.

The city will only allow nine members of the public to attend the meeting next Thursday, March 26, to ensure the social distancing rule is in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“(The City Council) is going to do an open interview,” said Claudia Ceja, McFarland’s city clerk. “There are nine candidates.”

Ceja said the city is moving forward with the meeting, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, because it is only has a 60-day window to fill the vacant seat; however, the City of McFarland has until May 11 to fill the seat. Ceja said the council is doing what the city attorney has advised it to do.

Immigrant rights advocates argue the city is rushing the appointment in an effort to schedule an appeal hearing for GEO, a private prison company, sooner rather than later. An appeal hearing could overturn the city’s Planning Commission vote from February that denied permit applications that would have allowed GEO to convert two state prisons in McFarland to immigration detention facilities.

RELATED CONTENT: GEO files appeal of McFarland Planning Commission’s decision to deny immigrant detention centers

There is no deadline for an appeal hearing, according to Jordan Wells, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The City Council wants to rush this so they can schedule an (appeal),” said Rosa Lopez with the ACLU. “They are only serving to the interest of GEO.”

The vote can be overturned with a majority vote from the city council. Right now, there are only four members on the board.

The vacancy comes after former mayor Manual Cantu resigned in February in response to the Planning Commission vote. On March 12, the city council appointed Council member Sally Gonzalez to fill the Mayor position, leaving a vacancy on the council.

RELATED CONTENT: McFarland seeks to fill vacant seat on city council; GEO appeal on hold till seat is filled

Advocates are urging the city to postpone the meeting for the welfare of the community. Advocates argue, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unfair to hold such a meeting at a time when residents are not able to attend and have input.

“Rushing into voting on this important issue that impacts the community out input is concerning,” Lopez said.

Other councils are working to take precautionary measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kern County Board of Supervisors is not holding a meeting next week, while the City of Delano is considering a teleconference city council meeting.

McFarland’s nine candidates will go through an interview process at Tuesday’s meeting, and the council will select someone to fill the vacancy the same day, making it difficult for residents to have any input, Lopez said.

RELATED CONTENT: McFarland comes out in full force; Planning Commission rejects GEO

Lopez said the city should be more concerned about keeping their residents safe and healthy, instead of going about “normal business.”

“There is no need to rush this whole process,” she said. “The city should divert their energy to address the needs of the community given the governor’s orders to shelter in place.” 

Although there will only be nine people allowed in the room, Ceja said community members can teleconference in via a conference line. The conference call line is (425)436-6331, access code 312016. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. at 103 W. Sherwood Ave.

Kern Sol News is a youth-led journalism organization in Kern County. In their stories, reporters shine light on health and racial disparities in under-served communities across Kern. For more stories by South Kern Sol, head to southkernsol.org.

Elizabeth Sanchez

Elizabeth Sanchez

Elizabeth Sanchez is the program associate for South Kern Sol. She can be reached at elizabeth@southkernsol.org.