Both mayoral candidates and all six candidates for two council seats attended the event at City Hall, hosted by the Patterson-Westley Chamber of Commerce, Soroptimist International of Patterson and the Patterson Irrigator.
Larry Giventer, professor of politics at California State University, Stanislaus, served as moderator and took questions from a crowd of nearly 75 in the council chambers.
When asked about their top priority, most candidates said they wanted more local jobs.
Council candidate Sheree Lustgarten said previous city leadership had not done enough to ensure Patterson residents retained high-paying jobs in the city.
“We should already have strong workforce development in place,” said Lustgarten, who ran unsuccessfully for council in 2010. “We need strong help in the community to help residents get good-paying jobs.”
Council candidate Carlos Fierros said in exchange for the city approving projects, locals should be hired.
“We could set aside a number of jobs to be hired locally when we approve businesses,” he said, noting that the city also needed to work with vocational educators to boost job training.
Mayor Luis Molina also thought more job training was needed.
“We can’t solve all of our ills around jobs without creating more opportunities for education,” he said.
He also talked about having a two-day trade show to bring in vocational educators to showcase skills to the community.
Molina’s mayoral opponent, Troy McComak, suggested Patterson take a cue from the city of Turlock and offer a $5,000 break on business fees to attract small business relocation and creation.
Council candidate Dennis McCord suggested working to help businesses relocate from the Bay Area and help them increase commerce and to hire locally.
In contrast to other candidates, Councilwoman Annette Smith said she believed the city’s top priority should be police services, noting that the city’s contract with the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department expires this year.
The sheriff’s department provides police services to the city for more than $3.5 million a year, and Smith said the city should consider in-house police services.
“We need to take the opportunity to look at going back to our own police department,” Smith said.
She said the city was at the mercy of a sheriff’s department that had cut salaries and benefits so much that it was hard to employ deputies. If Patterson wanted to add police personnel in the next contract cycle, it would be difficult to place them because of a shortage of deputies within the sheriff’s department, Smith said.
When Giventer later asked about the sheriff’s services contract, the panel responded with varying degrees of support.
Molina said the contract needed to remain in place, but not as it is written, saying the challenge facing the police department was cost and how much the peace-keeping force could increase as the city expands.
McComak, on the other hand, said Patterson needs to take its police services in-house.
“What’s the cost without our own police department?” he asked.
“With the sheriff department, we’re one step closer to chaos,” he added, describing deputies as attack dogs who would rather report crime than prevent it.
“We need to end that contract.”
McCord said the sheriff’s contract needed to be reviewed.
“We’re not getting the officers we’re entitled to because of shortages at the sheriff’s department,” he said, adding that he knew deputies assigned to Patterson as upstanding and professional. “Let’s review it and get the best police department we can afford.”
Giventer then switched the topic to teenagers and ways to keep them occupied.
Molina said the city needed to continue working with grant writers to identify funding to help build a permanent teen center.
“We need to provide them with entertainment but also challenge them about what life will be like after high school,” he said.
Councilman Dominic Farinha said the key was communication.
“We need to get more communication with our youth so we can do more for them,” he said.
Council candidate Tony Camacho said that youth crave leadership opportunities.
“What most teens are yearning for is leadership programs,” he said. “We need to get businesses, professionals and educators involved so our teens can have someone to look up to.”
Giventer also asked candidates about recent Stanislaus County civil grand jury reports and alleged acts of open meeting violations.
The original grand jury report released in June 2011 called for Smith’s ouster, by either citizen recall or her resignation, stating she had failed to recuse herself from a vote regarding developer John Ramos’ legal fees while she had a "fiduciary" relationship with him. It also stated that Ramos had written off expenses for Smith in the past.
In addition, it criticized Smith for allegedly confronting a resident in a supermarket parking lot and using abusive language.
The report stated she pressured city staff members to fire former Community Development Director Rod Simpson.
The report also recommended former Mayor Becky Campo pay back money she received as mayor, because she allegedly lived outside city limits.
In addition, it stated that the city should file a complaint with the California State Bar to chastise former City Attorney George Logan for alleged improprieties, such as failing to be in the room when the council voted to reimburse Ramos for $27,000 in legal fees. The grand jury advised that Ramos return that money to the city.
It also admonished Councilman Dominic Farinha for wrongfully awarding attorney's fees to Ramos, wrongfully attempt to dismiss a city employee, meeting privately with Campo and Smith to discuss city matters and pressuring a city building official to expedite an inspection on his property.
A second report in June said the city was getting better at complying with the state’s open-meeting law, but needed to do more.
Molina said the grand jury hit the mark on a couple of issues, but was a “toothless tiger.”
“I take what they say with a grain of salt,” he said.
McComak said in relation to the Brown Act, the law that governs open meetings, the city needed to have all meetings in the open, and he would push for that.
“We should ask why they’re meeting behind closed doors,” he said.
Lustgarten said she agreed with the grand jury reports.
“I personally agree with the grand jury report,” she said. “A lot of conflict of interest has passed by our own City Council.”
Smith, however, said she was wrongly accused by the grand jury.
“We were within the law, and I stand by my decisions,” she said.
McCord said the perception of ethics was of high importance to those that hold government positions of trust.
“If you don’t have the people’s trust, it’s too hard to govern,” he said.
• News Reporter Nick Rappley can be reached at 892-6187, ext. 31 or firstname.lastname@example.org.