Jeff Jardine

Victim or perpetrator of dirty politics? Council member lightning rod either way

Political fights such as the one going on at Patterson’s City Hall can paralyze a community and limit its ability to conduct its business, solve problems and improve the lives of its residents.
Political fights such as the one going on at Patterson’s City Hall can paralyze a community and limit its ability to conduct its business, solve problems and improve the lives of its residents.

While other members of Patterson’s City Council huddled in closed session Tuesday night, Councilwoman Sheree Lustgarten sat alone at the end of the dais.

A couple of times, they summoned her to the back of the room. Each time, she returned to her seat visibly upset, once even wiping away a tear.

It’s been a tumultuous 2 1/2 years in office for the 53-year-old who moved to Patterson from Southern California about seven years ago. She claims it’s been that way because she’s a relative newcomer who asks tough questions that expose corruption, and that the old guard and developers simply want her off the council and out of the way. Personal vendettas, she said, make it small-town politics as usual, blaming primarily former Mayor Pat Maisetti and former Councilwoman Annette Smith for her troubles.

Smith counters that Lustgarten’s problems are of her own doing, and accuses her of all sorts of strange, intimidating and bad behavior including boorishness and harassment. Patterson’s problems have been well documented in this and other publications, from grand jury investigations and bad business dealings involving the council to restraining orders against Lustgarten and the personality clashes. The Bee also detailed in 2013 a story about the abuse Lustgarten suffered as a victim of domestic violence during a previous marriage in the 1990s.

In recent months, other council members have demanded Lustgarten’s resignation and questioned her fitness for duty. Accusations that she bullied and threatened people during the summer at the city’s Hammon Senior Center resulted in a temporary restraining order to prevent her from visiting the center. A Stanislaus Superior Court judge lifted that one 10 days ago, but left intact a restraining order to keep her away from Councilman Dennis McCord, except for when they sit side by side during council meetings.

Indeed, the discussion in closed session that night last week focused upon Lustgarten. So did the public comment period once the open meeting began. Some chastised her by criticizing her behavior, and questioning her truthfulness and ethics. When one speaker offered an update on the status of the effort to recall Lustgarten, she warned them a recall election would cost the city $50,000 it doesn’t have.

Sorry, wrong answer. Recalls are part of the political process, and citizens should never be dissuaded by the cost of recalling someone they deem unsuitable for office even though recall efforts have a poor track record of success.

One speaker, Patterson resident Sandy McDowell, defended Lustgarten.

“What I see happening here is a great deal of distortion, collusion, obfuscation and some downright lies,” McDowell said.

Sadly, this kind of contentiousness isn’t uncommon in politics, whether in large cities, medium-sized cities, rapidly growing towns such as Patterson and Riverbank, or small towns such as Hughson, here in the Valley or anywhere else in the country.

Such political fights can paralyze a community and limit its ability to conduct its business, solve problems and improve the lives of its residents. It can be divisive and discourage other people – newbies or area veterans – from participating in local government. Those who do step up might be treated as intruders by those who have been running a town for years, which Lustgarten claims is happening to her and Smith said simply isn’t true.

Patterson has more than doubled its population to 21,000 in the past two decades, the majority of new residents finding refuge in the Valley from high home prices in the Bay Area. Many still commute to work over the hill, and when they do pay attention to local politics, it’s often through social media – not by attending meetings and getting involved in the actual political process beyond perhaps voting. For the most part, governing is left to those with longtime ties to the city.

The same kind of thing happened in Riverbank, which shot up from 13,000 residents in 1995 to about 24,000 today. With a couple of exceptions, most of the folks on the City Council in recent years have been longtime residents. In fact, Dave White served on the council from his appointment in 1984 until he opted not to run in 2010. Things turned ugly, though, when his grandson, Jesse James White, won a council seat at 19 years old in 2008 and quickly became an enemy of others on the council, including then-Mayor Virginia Madueño.

Similar to Lustgarten, Jesse James White found himself the target of recall campaigns and open demands for his resignation. The council pursued the idea of removing him from office through the court system until it realized it would cost roughly $100,000 in legal fees with no guarantee of success. He had bigger problems that ultimately gave them their way. Near the end of his only term, Jesse White was arrested on felony counts of driving under the influence causing injury and resisting an Oakdale police officer, along with misdemeanors of child endangerment and hit-and-run causing property damage. He left office before being convicted and did county jail time.

None of it – his behavior, the time the council spent arguing and dealing with it, and the bad image it created – was good for Riverbank or for White himself. I wondered at the time why anyone would want to serve under such a cloud and in such an environment of discord.

I later asked Lustgarten that question. The tension. The antagonism gotten and given. That lonely seat at the end of the dais next to a council member who has a restraining order against her that’s effective at all other times. What could possibly be the upside for her or anyone else in this?

“My legal fees are over $14,000 so far,” she admitted. “But if I step down now, they win. And what they are saying about me is untrue.”

And she doesn’t believe the recall effort will succeed. Will she run again in 2016?

“Possibly,” Lustgarten said. “I haven’t ruled it out.”