PATTERSON — City Councilwoman Sheree Lustgarten apologized for evading the truth about personal financial problems before she was narrowly elected in the fall, and supporters at Tuesday's council meeting showered her with praise for withstanding abuse in a previous marriage.
Mayor Luis Molina and City Attorney Tom Hallinan said the council doesn't have authority to remove Lustgarten, but that prospect never came up Tuesday night.
Two unsuccessful candidates who previously said they would demand her resignation changed course, they said before the meeting, to avoid a public spectacle.
"I apologize for my mistake," Lustgarten told the audience, adding that she was "not under oath and I did nothing illegal" by denying bankruptcies and a foreclosure on a standard Bee questionnaire during the campaign.
She captured eight more votes than Dennis McCord, who wondered whether some voters might have reconsidered if Lustgarten had not concealed financial trouble before the election.
Former Councilwoman Annette Smith, who also finished out of the running in November, also had said critics would ask Lustgarten to step down.
"At this point, it's real divisive and it's getting mean," said McCord, noting The Bee's Jan. 6 stories followed by several letters to the editor and coverage in the Patterson Irrigator. "We're not trying to make it worse."
Smith said, "I made it publicly clear I think she should resign for not being truthful during the campaign. The message is out there. Do I need to go to the podium? I don't think I need to."
Lustgarten and her then-husband filed for bankruptcy four times and defaulted on a mortgage in the 1990s in Southern California, but she did not come clean on The Bee's questionnaire in October.
Confronted after the election, Lustgarten, 51, shared stories of physical and financial abuse supported by graphic photographs and court documents. At one point, she was homeless with five children.
She doesn't feel she lied, she said, because bankruptcies and foreclosures fall off credit reports after 10 years and seven years, respectively.
During the open-comment portion of Tuesday's meeting, only supporters came to the speaker's rostrum.
"I'm very proud of what you have overcome," said Laura Bessette of Patterson. She and others, she said, "want you to stay on the board. Please do not leave."
Barbara Pereira said critics' "actions are looking like sour grapes." People she knows who didn't vote for Lustgarten now say they would have if they had known her story, Pereira said.
"Let's all grow up, not be babies and let Councilwoman Lustgarten (and others) do the jobs we elected them to do," she said.
Lustgarten said, "I promise I won't let you down."
Molina said City Hall received "a lot of phone calls" from people on both sides.
Lustgarten said she appreciated the many who voiced support. She also cited the ongoing civility campaign championed by the Stanislaus County Office of Education, which preaches tolerance.
"I ask everyone to have compassion when somebody is being bullied or abused," she said. "Don't judge these (victims). You don't know what they're going through.
"To any kids watching," she continued, "do not ever let anybody define who you are. I did make that mistake, but I no longer do."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.