Tom Hallinan thought he’d seen it all in Riverbank a couple of years ago, when that city’s council tried several times to oust troubled councilman Jesse James White from office.
Two recall attempts couldn’t do it. Neither could spending $50,000 trying to litigate White from his seat or a grand jury recommendation that he step down over questions regarding whether he lived within the city when he originally filed to run for his council seat. Nor could White’s legal problems that included two felony and two misdemeanor convictions from a car crash in 2012. Officially, White left office because he did not seek another term.
Hallinan is the city attorney in Riverbank. And in Ceres. He’s also the city attorney in Patterson, where that council recently vacated the seat held by Sheree Lustgarten. And despite the contentiousness involving White in Riverbank, Hallinan will tell you the situation in Patterson is worse.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my 25 years (as city government counsel),” Hallinan said. “I thought the Jesse James White situation was the most interesting thing I’d ever dealt with until this.”
“This” meaning the acrimony between Lustgarten and others on the council and the community. Practically from the moment she took office, she claimed the city was corrupt and dominated by a good-ol’-boy network. She made enemies from the get-go, and quickly became a target herself. She was accused of bullying seniors at the town’s senior center and of making threats against Dennis McCord – the councilman who sat next to her on the dais and who obtained a restraining order that kept her away from him except during council meetings.
Her husband, Jeff Lustgarten, committed suicide in December. And her political enemies seized upon statements about her past that were not truthful, including that she had never been convicted of a crime.
A 1998 battery on a spouse charge in San Bernardino County had been reduced to a “fighting noise; offensive words” infraction and she was convicted of passing a bad check, a misdemeanor, in Riverside County. Lustgarten told The Modesto Bee’s Ken Carlson in February that both cases were related to being a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of a previous husband 18 years ago.
“I found out about the bad check when I was in hiding, and I paid it,” Lustgarten said. “They were trying to get me on a perjury charge for things that happened 18 years ago.”
In April, after being evicted and moving, Lustgarten failed to provide city officials with a new address. The council planned to vacate her seat then, but she pre-empted the action by providing documentation that she still lived in Patterson, Hallinan said.
Recently, though, a woman in Gustine came forth to tell authorities Lustgarten lived in that city for a few weeks, and that Lustgarten had to be evicted by Gustine police. The whistleblower signed an affidavit under penalty of perjury, and the document gave the council and city officials what they needed to move forward in bouncing her from the council, which they formally did late last month.
“It’s a tragedy all the way around,” Hallinan said. “But (officials) have to do what’s for the greater good of all of the city.”
Tuesday night, the four remaining council members – Mayor Luis Molina, McCord, Deborah Novelli and Dominic Farinha – will pick her replacement from a field of four applicants. Among them, Peter P. La Torre Jr. is a retired physician and Troy McComak works at a paintball facility. Vivian Ratliff, also retired, is active in the community. The fourth, Elias Funez, once worked for The Bee as an on-call photographer and later served briefly as the editor of the Patterson Irrigator newspaper. The application form included an entry that read “Employer,” followed by a blank space to provide that information.
Funez’s response? “Yes, I have one.” OK ... By that, he means himself. The Patterson native launched the one-man-show www.weststanislausjournal.com in December and, if chosen, would be in the position of being a council member whose publication covers the city.
The applicant selected will hold the seat through the remainder of Lustgarten’s term. She is up for re-election in November and told me – and others – she is considering running again.
The city wants California Attorney General Kamala Harris to rule that the convictions should prohibit Lustgarten from running for office, and the city could cite the Gustine issue as further evidence though no charges have been filed.
It’s unlikely, Hallinan said, any such decision would materialize before the election. Should Lustgarten run and win, they’d have to find grounds to remove her all over again.
“It’s a morass,” he said. “A mess.”
Worse, if you can imagine, than Riverbank during the Jesse James White era.
Patterson’s City Council will hold its regular meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the City Council Chambers at City Hall downtown.