I’m speaking of last week’s City Council meeting.
Its prime purpose was to hear presentations from four consulting firms about their process of conducting a study to revitalize Patterson’s downtown. Certainly an innocuous topic.
The meeting was called for 6 p.m., giving each firm an hour to give its proposal and answer questions. But it opened with a simple agenda item that was fully explained and easily understood in the first five minutes.
Then the fireworks started.
First, the item. City Manager Rod Butler explained the recommendation to eliminate bringing final approval of development projects to the council. It meant changing the city’s ordinance to drop the council from the process, a logical change after the city staff had worked with the developer to iron out wrinkles of a proposed tentative map.
The reason for the hurried change also was explained. It seems that a major company that wants to put up a one-and-a-half million square foot building (half again larger than Amazon) has boiled down its prospective sites down to Patterson and another city. It wants a decision soon; thus the request to cut the paperwork process and save time and money.
APPROVED BY PLANNERS
The Planning Commission met in special session the previous day and moved the project along.
First Councilmember Sheree Lustgarten got the discussion rolling by objecting to dropping the council from the process. It was her opinion, she noted curtly, that city staff had fouled up in the past, cost the city big bucks in law suits, and that the council should make the decision on final maps.
In the audience was engineer Max Garcia of Ceres. He and acting City Attorney Doug White jumped in to explain that Patterson is probably the only city in the valley, maybe the only one in Northern California, where the council makes the final decision on such matters.
Garcia was representing the mystery project, as he has done with a number of projects that have added to Patterson’s growth by developing jobs. He pointed out that Patterson’s approval process is far more tedious than that of other cities. Also noted was that lawsuits would surely follow the council’s turndown of a final map after city officials had already approved it.
(Implied but not said was that elected officials lack the expertise to judge the technical aspects of commercial and industrial development. After all, they weren’t elected with that in mind. Patterson pays good money for professionals including a city engineer to make these decisions. Should they screw up, fire ’em.)
THEN IT GOT WILD
From there, it got wild and somewhat weird. Councilmembers seldom received the floor from Mayor Luis Molina who along with Councilmember Larry Buehner sat back and watched the fireworks. Neither joined the war of words.
Lustgarten and Councilmember Deborah Novelli exchanged heated words, with Novelli at one point asking her adversary to be quiet and allow her (Novelli) to speak without interruption.
Councilmember Dominic Farinha also jumped into the fray several times. He favored bringing new jobs to the community, he said, but didn’t like the rush of the procedure. He said he thought there was some unspoken reason why the project was being rushed.
For whatever his reason, Farinha also stated that he was a third-generation Pattersonite and had seniority on the council, having served six years. What he was implying only he knows.
The panel also debated about delaying the meeting to a special one that could be held three days later on Friday morning, thus allowing time for public notice. That idea got nowhere.
(It should be noted the council has been holding a number of special meetings. Regular meetings are scheduled on the first and third Tuesdays of the month.)
Finally Buehner moved to accept the ordinance change, but before a second was obtained, more pointed debates delayed getting on with the purpose of the meeting – hearing from consultants.
It was a full hour that a 4-1 vote was taken approving the first reading of the ordinance change. It was scheduled to come up again for final passage at this past Tuesday’s meeting of the council. In the vote only Lustgarten dissented. I was surprised that Farinha seemed to change sides and vote in favor.
SPLIT IS OBVIOUS
It was obvious that this council is deeply split, at least at the personality level. Some of its members are downright disrespectful to each other. On top of that they repeatedly apologized to the first consulting firm on its agenda, its representatives having sat through the long hour of repetition, interruptions and flare-ups.
The meeting began at 6 p.m. It concluded at 11:45 p.m. I went home an hour early, having heard enough.
Patterson residents don’t deserve a dysfunctional council. They don’t deserve petty bickering among their elected officials. They don’t deserve pettiness and political campaigning from the dais.
I was embarrassed. Here was an out-of-town landscape and planning firm ready to present its ideas about downtown redevelopment. I wondered at the end of the council harangue and bad vibes if the firm might not bow out of wanting to do business with the city of Patterson.
To his credit, Buehner calmly stated his position in as few words as possible.
Mayor Molina said little, but also used his gavel sparingly. That was a mistake. He was voted in to have it in hand and should use his gavel when needed. And it was needed at this meeting.
Another thing – the city staff should never be berated in public by its elected officials. Complaints about staff should be taken to the city manager. Until changed, that too is an ordinance. Public inference about staff job performance is not only illegal, but morale-reducing.
This council needs watching closely. Some will find it humorous, others nauseating. But whatever you feel about it, it bears continual scrutinizing.
Ron Swift is the editor/publisher emeritus of the Patterson Irrigator. He can be reached at email@example.com.