The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Madera County Board of Supervisors on Monday, alleging that it violated California's open meetings law when it changed an immigration-related policy behind closed doors.
In March, the supervisors increased cooperation between the county's jail and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In a March 30 press release, Madera County Dist. Atty. David Linn announced that the board had unanimously instructed the director of the county's department of corrections to "fully comply with all ICE requests."
Under the new policy, jail leaders must notify ICE when immigrant inmates are being released and schedule times for ICE agents to pick them up. Linn told Valley Public Radio in April that ICE is interested in any immigrant who has committed a felony.
"As of today, we are definitely not a sanctuary county, in that we are in compliance with ICE requests," Linn said in the release. He said failing to cooperate with immigration authorities could result in the loss of $46 million in federal funds. He added that he believes the cooperation with ICE will prevent the agency from having to conduct raids in residential areas, schools and on farms.
Minutes for the March 7 meeting state that the board met in closed session to discuss a "public employee performance evaluation" for the corrections director, and that no action was taken. The ACLU alleges that the immigration policy was changed during that session, based on its review of public records, news accounts and Linn's press release.
The Ralph M. Brown Act guarantees the public's right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies. The ACLU lawsuit says the board's decision required the opportunity for public comment.
"A public agency such as the Madera County Board of Supervisors simply cannot change a major policy behind closed doors," said Julia Harumi Mass, a senior attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.
Linn, the district attorney, said in a March 1 letter to the board that ICE had contacted his office numerous times, saying the jail had "refused to cooperate with them as required by law" and was releasing dangerous felons into the local community. He said he had "extended discussions with numerous community members to obtain their views concerning ICE deportations."
Linn scheduled a "summit" with ICE and county leaders. He said the corrections director, Manuel Perez, held his own secret meeting with ICE representatives instead of attending the summit. He accused Perez of "attempting to stall rather than enforce immigration law." He said he instructed his staff to research potential charges of malfeasance and requested a meeting in closed session with the board as early as possible.
"If you do not grant my request, I will bring the matter to public session," he said in the letter, which was obtained by the ACLU.
Linn included a sample list of immigrants released from Madera County Jail without notifying ICE who had served time for convictions including drug possession, sex with a minor, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, DUI and public fighting.
Perez did not immediately return a call for comment.
On June 2, the ACLU sent the board a letter asking them to "cure or correct its unlawful action." On June 30, the board declined.
In a response to the ACLU's letter, the county's deputy counsel Scott Cross said the county is not required or able to comply with the organization's request because public employee performance evaluations are not covered under the Brown Act and no action was taken during the closed session.
"Because no action was taken, there is no action that can be cured or corrected," Cross said.
He said any further action taken by the ACLU "would be clearly frivolous and totally lacking in merit, and the County will seek to recover court costs and reasonable attorney's fees."
"The County is disappointed the case was filed, but will appropriately defend itself," she said.
The lawsuit asks a judge to declare that the county violated the Brown Act, nullify the new policy and order the board to comply with the law's requirements.