Although mayoral candidates Luis Molina and Annette Smith exchanged deeply charged words at times, the evening was mostly congenial, giving candidates the chance to share their views and respond to questions from more than 50 attendees.
“I think we’ve had a good discussion on the issues, and I think it’s been a positive thing,” council candidate James Leonard said in his closing speech.
Candidates took turns describing their platforms and visions for the city before answering pre-screened questions read by moderator Pete Rookard and offering final comments.
City Council candidate Larry Buehner said he wants to run for council to address Patterson’s challenging financial situation and to ensure that the city operates with a balanced budget. He also emphasized making public safety a priority.
Sheree Lustgarten, who also is running for council, described life growing up in the Orange County city of Brea, which she watched grow from a rural community of 5,000 people to 40,000 people. She said she saw a lot of mistakes made in the process and wants to prevent those from happening in Patterson. She suggested that the council should take a more reasonable approach to issues and avoid infighting. Lustgarten also stressed fiscal responsibility and communication with the community.
Leonard stressed that he would communicate with constituents and would seek to maintain an even-mannered demeanor on the council while seeking to bridge divisions. He said he did not seek mere cohesion among council members. Instead, he advocates a council with varying viewpoints and members willing to discuss them and reach a consensus.
Council candidate Deborah Novelli spent much of the time talking about her experience in public relations and community service, and she also emphasized family values. She also talked about a need for economic development in Patterson, saying that the city is on the cusp of opportunities regarding commercial and retail growth.
Councilman Sam Cuellar, who seeks to retain his seat, noted that he has lived in town 50 years, having moved to Patterson with his grandparents, who are farm workers. He emphasized public safety, saying there are more criminals in the area as the result of prisoner release programs. He also said there is a need for more jobs, and he advocated working more closely with the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance.
Molina, chairman of the Stanislaus County Board of Education, said his goals as mayor would involve jobs, expanded youth services and public safety. He touted his experience with the county board of education during the past five years, pointing out that its budget was four times the size of the city of Patterson. The city must do “more with less” financially, he said, and he figures it must cut bureaucracy to do so.
Smith, who serves as Patterson’s mayor pro-tem, described life growing up in the Silicon Valley city of Campbell when it was still rural and said she felt right at home in Patterson when she moved to town 21 years ago. She maintained a focus on jobs and public safety, expressing particular worry about the frequent closure of Fire Station 1 when there are not enough firefighters to staff it. She also mentioned the city’s financial challenges, saying that the council has scrutinized the budget far more than past councils.
As Rookard asked the candidates questions written by members of the audience, they showed a general consensus on some issues. For instance, all of them maintained that the newly elected City Council and not the present council should hire a future city manager to ensure the process would not be rushed. In addition, they all opposed developer Gerry Kamilos’ proposal to develop 4,800 acres on and around the former U.S. naval airfield in Crows Landing into a rail hub for the Port of Oakland.
“It’s massive; it’s unfathomably big, and it will have an irreversible impact on the West Side and especially Patterson,” Leonard said.
At the same time, Lustgarten said she wanted to withhold judgment on Kamilos’ West Park project as a whole until she saw forthcoming revisions to his initial plan.
Candidates were less unified on other issues. When it came to the topic of “smart growth,” their definitions were all across the board.
“I believe that smart growth is Walmart,” Novelli said, stressing the need to lure businesses to Patterson to help combat the county’s dismal unemployment rate. She also said the city needs to focus on the downtown area.
For Buehner, it meant creating more jobs, making the town more business-friendly and focusing on the city’s “old town.”
Leonard’s “smart growth” definition entailed avoiding sprawl, having infrastructure in place before the city grows and not spreading out to the boundaries outlined in the revised general plan. He also advocated for more high-density housing in town.
Cuellar also focused on having water and infrastructure in place before growing, as well as maintaining a jobs-to-housing balance and following the general plan.
Lustgarten said smart growth does not necessarily have to entail placing apartments above storefronts. It also could include workforce training, working with the Alliance to bring in a varied base of jobs, growing the main downtown district and coming up with a general plan that accommodates the city’s history.
Molina said the principle means growth is balanced and responsible.
“If we’re going to grow in certain areas, we have a responsibility to the whole community,” he said.
Smith said it entails creating a balance of development between the areas that are east and west of Highway 33 and sticking with the general plan.
A few individual candidates were asked questions, too.
For instance, an audience member wanted to know whether Lustgarten’s relative lack of campaign signs was a campaign strategy.
She laughingly replied that she is new to the city and relatively unknown, so she has gone on a door-to-door campaign and used smaller campaign signs.
Audience members also questioned Buehner about how he could represent the city without excusing himself from the general plan process, as he has myriad land holdings in the Patterson area. Buehner said he simply would not vote on the general plan, although he looked forward to voting on other issues that needed attention, such as the budget.
Another question concerned whether Buehner, Novelli and Smith were running as a team, given the proximity of their campaign signs.
Smith said all the signs in Patterson were relatively close together, but Novelli stated that she supported Smith’s ideologies and said she believed she and Buehner could work together as a team. Smith also said this week that she supports Novelli as a council candidate. She said she supported Buehner making a run for council, but she said the same about the remaining council candidates.
When Smith questioned whether the proximity of Cuellar, Molina and Leonard’s campaign signs indicated that they were allied, Molina and Cuellar each said they supported the other’s campaigns. However, neither of them mentioned Leonard, and Leonard did not respond to the question about signs.
While some candidates might have been allied, others definitely were not.
Lusgarten prided herself on being an independent candidate in the race.
Meanwhile, Leonard drew a distinction between himself and Buehner, among other candidates, saying that when candidates become too close to developers or are developers themselves, they become worried about their own wallets.
Molina and Smith were even more pointed in their attacks on each other.
Molina said City Hall’s leadership has been decimated in terms of department heads, attributing the mess to a lack of leadership on the part of Mayor Becky Campo and the City Council. He also said the council jumped the gun by spending about $300,000 on litigation against West Park, rather than allowing the project to naturally fail.
Smith likened the city instead to a blank canvas. She defended the council’s decision to let go of former City Manager Cleve Morris earlier this year, saying that she still thinks the council did the right thing, even after much criticism from community members who liked the former city manager.
“We took a big hammering, and one we didn’t deserve,” she said. “We were doing our job.”
She also spent most of her final speech in censure of Molina, saying he had misplaced priorities when he said the council needed to forge more partnerships with educational institutions.
“Some time on the council would have really educated him on what he should be doing,” she said.
One thing everyone could agree on was affection for the community, despite its struggles. Leonard described how he had fallen in love with the town, and Lustgarten said she loved the city’s spirit of volunteerism.
“You’ve got a gem here,” Lustgarten said. “We’ve all got a gem here.”
To watch a video of the forum online, click here.
Editor's note: The print version of this article on Tuesday, Oct. 14, incorrectly quoted candidate Deborah Novelli's views on economic development. Novelli said Patterson is on the cusp of commercial and retail growth. The Irrigator regrets the error.
• Contact Jonathan Partridge at 892-6187 or email@example.com.