McFarland to fill vacancy at Thursday’s city council meeting; advocates say meeting protocols to involve public are ‘limited’

April 8, 2020 /

The McFarland City Council will appoint someone to fill a council vacancy at Thursday’s City Council meeting, after advocates urged officials to postpone last month’s meeting to a later date when the public can offer their feedback.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the meeting will not be open for the public to attend. Instead, residents can listen in on the meeting via teleconference line. Should community members wish to make a public comment, they must submit their comments in writing prior to the meeting.

“This is very limited,” said Rosa Lopez, a policy advocate and organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union. “If people don’t have access to emails, that’s not accessible. The meeting will be conducted in English only, so public members who speak Spanish won’t be able to follow what’s going on.”

Lopez said it remains unclear if the Brown Act requires local government agencies to provide translation services during the state of emergency. Had the pandemic and public safety not become an issue, the Brown Act would require local government agencies to provide accommodations, such as translation services, according to the population.

“Because of the COVID-19 situation and restrictions with public space, it is not clear which specific accommodations need to be made,” Lopez said.

However, Interim McFarland City Manager Larry Pennell said the law does not require the City of McFarland to provide translation services at these types of meetings.

“I would hope (Spanish speakers) put their phone on speaker and have someone who is bilingual translate for them,” Pennell said. “That’s what I would do.”

Pennell said each candidate will have five minutes to present on why they would like to fill the vacancy, and then the city council will appoint one of the candidates.

Local government agencies across the nation are struggling to find solutions to stay connected to constituents during the pandemic. The Kern County Board of Supervisors received criticism at last week’s meeting, where one resident called the public comment protocol “insufficient.”

“Residents should not have to limit public comments to emails and voicemails,” said Adeyinka Glover, a former staffer with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, in her public comment letter. “There is no method for the public to engage in real time.”

Thursday’s city council meeting will not allow members of the public to offer any type of feedback or input after the candidates have presented because their public comments must be submitted prior to the start of the meeting.

Instead of trying to fill the vacancy, Lopez said city officials should be working to adopt measures that protect the community during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, Pennell said he would like to fill the vacancy soon.

“This vacancy has been a well-known event, and I would recommend it not be postponed,” he said. “I would like to get the vacancy filled as soon as possible so we can get on with other matters.”

The City of McFarland has until May 11 to fill the vacant seat.

RELATED CONTENT: 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

The vacancy comes after the city council appointed Council Member Sally Gonzalez to fill the Mayor position. She filled former mayor Manuel Cantu’s position after he resigned in February in response to the Planning Commission vote in February to deny permit applications that would have allowed GEO Inc. to convert two state prisons in McFarland to immigration detention facilities.

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.

“I think (the City of McFarland) is receiving pressure from GEO advocates,” Lopez said. “This is a perfect time to rush through it. They won’t have a public outcry.”

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

“Right now, our biggest concern is responding to COVID-19 and what measures they are adopting to protect the public,” Lopez said. “This is not the time to appease a private corporation.”

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.