Hurried change leads to long council meeting
by Ron Swift | Patterson Irrigator
Apr 15, 2014 | 1781 views | 3 3 comments | 121 121 recommendations | email to a friend | print
First it was irritating, then exasperating, and finally embarrassing.

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.


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.)


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.


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

Comments-icon Post a Comment
May 20, 2014
I take offense to some of the comments made at these meetings. I found it hard to believe that "no other city in Stanislaus County still requires council approval on final maps," as one of our city officials stated on camera.

As a result of those comments, I made a public records request to every other city in the county, and the responses I got from city officials indicated the same thing: all final maps required council approval. And yes, that includes Modesto.

As a citizen of this community, I don't like being lied to by the people we elect, and I don't like being lied to by city staff, and I don't like being lied to by the media. I don't like people implying that I or others are idiots or are not entitled to weigh in on a discussion simply because we haven't lived here forever.

City officials need to shape up, or they'll find themselves in court, over and over again, paying a million here and a million there in settlements because they keep making little errors that were preventable. Our dollars are much better spent on investing in our community.
April 24, 2014
With all due respect, I'm not sure you saw the same meeting I did. First of all, you make it seem as if none of the councilmembers cared about whether this new agenda item was going to impact the interviews of the visioning firms. Both Councilman Farinha and my wife Mayor Pro Tem Lustgarten said at the beginning of the meeting that they had questions about this proposed ordinance but didn't want to take time away from the firms about to be interviewed. In fact, my wife went so far as to state at the beginning that she had a number of questions about the item and suggested that it be considered after the interviews.

Second, I don't know how you could say that Councilman Buehner "sat back and watched the fireworks." Councilman Buehner had plenty to contribute to the discussion that night, just as he did when it came back for second reading last week. You also neglected to mention that the Planning Commission raised many questions about the ordinance the previous evening, and they too had some dissension on their panel before allowing it to move forward on a 3-1 vote.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, she didn't "berate" city staff as you stated. All she did was express concern about moving so quickly on an important change to the development approval process and cited the fact that that some recent developments had run into difficulties because of poor oversight. But she didn't single out staff; she said that previous councils and planning commissions had made mistakes as well. And for the record, I have personally heard other councilmembers (current and former) make much more direct and derogatory comments directed at staff than Sheree did that night, and I don't recall you writing about those "morale-reducing" actions when they occurred.

Sheree was just as concerned as you were about the visioning firms being given ample opportunity to present their ideas and potential approaches to the downtown visioning process. But that doesn't mean that she was just going to rubber stamp an ordinance about which she had been given virtually no information without asking some legitimate questions.

If you think this council deserves continual scrutiny, that's fine and it's your prerogative. Every council should be held accountable, both as individual members and collectively. But I would hope that going forward, you would be a bit more thorough and balanced in your reporting of the council's business than you were in this case.


Jeff Lustgarten
April 24, 2014
Well said, Ron. It seems we've regressed to the bad old days - somewhat. Suspicion of, rather than cooperation with, City staff has been a recurring theme with a few past council members and you are absolutely correct about the morale eroding aspect of that path. As a former City staff member I can attest to the humiliation felt when our integrity was called into question. As for the embarrassing er . . . . exchange of compliments at the meeting, we know that Patterson isn't unique in that regard. Representational government by elected officials isn't perfect, it's just the best we've come up with so far. The fact that were no worse or better than any other municipality doesn't make this lack of civility any less embarrassing, but we know we can do better, and we should.

Patrick Bodin, New Mexico USA

We encourage your online comments in this public forum, but please keep them respectful and constructive. This is not a forum for personal attacks, libelous statements, profanity or racist slurs. Readers may report such inappropriate comments by e-mailing the editor at