Livingston council sees light at end of coop

LIVINGSTON -- The City Council is calling an emergency meeting tonight to vote on a proposed resolution to its legal battle with Foster Farms.

The specifics remain secret because they're part of the long and sometimes contentious litigation between Livingston and the poultry processing giant. However, if the agreement is approved, it would probably settle the three lawsuits and a slew of other tussles between the two. It's the first time a resolution has made it to the council.

"There are some things that are proposed, and we'll see if it's worthwhile or not," Mayor Gurpal Samra said. "It gives us something toward the finish line."

The City Council will meet in closed session at 4 p.m. to read a final draft and then will report its actions at 4:45 p.m. at City Hall.

Samra read a draft version of a settlement, though he wouldn't offer any specifics. Lawyers worked during the weekend to hammer out some of the finer details, he said, adding that it still could fall apart or not pass the council.

If that happens, the city and Foster Farms would head to trial in December or January before Merced County Superior Court Judge Frank Dougherty, who has been critical of the city's actions and has never ruled in its favor.

The City Council has often discussed the lawsuits during its closed sessions before the regular meetings and hired an outside attorney to handle the case.

After the lawyers couldn't come up with a solution, a judge sent the case to a third-party mediator, who also failed to bring the two sides eye-to-eye.

The lawsuit fractured relations between the city and the county's largest employer and has been seen by some as the growing pains of a company town taking a stand.

Foster Farms sued Livingston in July 2006 after city officials threatened to turn off the water because they wanted the com-pany to install a specific water-protection device.

Company leaders went to a judge to keep the water flowing, though they agreed that more protection was needed. They offered to buy a less expensive system that they said met industry standards, but city leaders demanded a device they considered fail-safe.

That lawsuit splintered into a federal civil rights lawsuit that ruled City Manager Richard Warne and Public Works Director Paul Creighton were violating the company's First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights.

The complaint alleged that the two waged a "retaliation campaign," citing the city's rejection of a building permit and asserting that Warne urged residents to call a phone number to complain about Foster Farms.

The city's attorney called the lawsuit an abusive tactic by the company to harass and intimidate city leaders.

Most recently, a three-judge panel ruled that the city couldn't inspect the chicken processing plant for building code violations, because it appeared they were going to use the access to gain leverage in the lawsuits.

City leaders maintain that there has been construction at the complex without the necessary permits, and their attorney said Foster Farms employees acknowledged that recently under oath.