Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Beleaguered Patterson councilwoman mulls running for another term

Patterson City Council member Sheree Lustgarten at the podium during a meeting Oct. 6, 2015.
Patterson City Council member Sheree Lustgarten at the podium during a meeting Oct. 6, 2015.

There are plenty of reasons why Sheree Lustgarten might opt not to run for re-election to the Patterson City Council in November.

She’s grieving the loss of her husband, Jeff Lustgarten, who took his own life in December. A city clerk called to personally express condolences. Mayor Luis Molina and his wife attended the funeral service. The city, as an entity, sent flowers. But none of the other three council members called, sent a card or uttered a word of sympathy.

“None of my colleagues put all of the BS behind and said anything,” she said.

Why? Lustgarten has many enemies in town, both politically and personally, and counts the city itself among them. Officials lack the legal authority to vote her off of that island, so they formally asked state Attorney General Kamala Harris to allow them to sue to oust her. They accuse her of perjuring herself by claiming on disclosure forms that she’d never declared bankruptcy or had been arrested on criminal charges when, in fact, she had dating back to 1997 in Riverside County, before she moved to the Valley. Organizers suspended a recall effort against her until the state rules on whether to permit the lawsuit.

Another probe determined she tried to intimidate and bully folks at the city’s Hammons Senior Center, and the city paid for an attorney to represent her. Meanwhile, a Stanislaus County Superior Court judge recently extended a restraining order that keeps her 100 yards away from the home, car or workplace of Councilman Dennis McCord because, he said, “she threatened to kill me.”

The order, however, allows her to attend council meetings, where until recently she sat next to McCord in what all deemed a most uncomfortable situation. Earlier this year, Molina swapped seats with McCord to put distance between them.

She’s also been accused of harassing and stalking other council members including Deborah Novelli, which is why Novelli didn’t personally call Lustgarten when her husband died.

“We’re both women and moms,” Novelli said. “My heart hurts for her. It’s an uncomfortable situation to be in. It’s sad all the way around.”

So why, you might wonder, would Lustgarten even consider serving another term in a venue rife with mutual distrust, hostility and personal anguish?

“If I let them run me off, it makes it worse for the people who want to have a voice in the community,” she said.

And what if she runs and wins again? And then what if the city is allowed to sue and removes her from the council – a process that might take a couple of years?

“All the decisions she’d help make would have to be voided,” McCord said.

The acrimony runs so deep that the city earlier this month sent to The Modesto Bee and Patterson Irrigator newspapers a letter directed at the city’s residents outlining its case for forcing her off the council, calling her three-plus years on the council “controversial and divisive” and accusing her of telling “lies and distortions.”

“The significance of this information goes beyond the nature of her crimes and fraudulent actions,” it reads. “It also spread to Lustgarten’s credibility and fitness to serve.”

Lustgarten told The Bee she was a domestic violence victim from a previous marriage down south, and a victim as a council member because she challenges the “good ’ol boy politics” she claims controls city government. She claims she is the one being stalked. She’s also accused city officials of costing her husband his job because of his political involvement on her behalf, which she believes was among his reasons for committing suicide.

City business goes on regardless. To avoid an expensive lawsuit, Patterson is considering moving to district elections instead of its current four open council seats filled with four-year terms, and a mayor serving two-year terms.

A consultant is expected to present some district mapping options at Tuesday’s council meeting. They could conceivably switch in time for the November election, McCord said. Among the options is five districts, each with a council representative rotating the mayor’s job each year.

Mayor Molina will not run again, opting instead to challenge incumbent Stanislaus County District 5 Supervisor Jim DeMartini. Lustgarten is up for re-election, as is Councilman Dominic Farinha.

The irony is that should Lustgarten survive the city’s ouster attempts and be re-elected in whatever district she lives, she could end up serving as the city’s mayor.

Of course, that would be incumbent upon her decision whether to run again. She must file papers by Aug. 12. Lustgarten is also the vice chair of the county’s Central Democratic Committee.

“So many people say to do it,” Lustgarten said. “People are asking me to run for my seat again.”

None of them, however, are council colleagues or high-ranking city officials who want her out of office, period.

It’s a mess, personally, politically and in every other way imaginable.