Political waters choppy in 2012
by Nick Rappley | Patterson Irrigator
Dec 27, 2012 | 1756 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Candidates for Patterson city council adress questions posed by a moderator at a Candidate's Forum at City Hall on Monday night, Ocober 1..Lisa James / Patterson Irrigator
Candidates for Patterson city council adress questions posed by a moderator at a Candidate's Forum at City Hall on Monday night, Ocober 1..Lisa James / Patterson Irrigator
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Lawsuits and possible litigation over developer fees and unpaid taxes, as well as changes to the City Council in the fall election, made political waters tough to navigate in Patterson in 2012.

Election yields new councilwoman

The Nov. 6 general election saw the rise of Sheree Lustgarten to a City Council seat and the decline in the political fortunes of Councilwoman Annette Smith, but it took a long time for the result to emerge.

Councilman Dominic Farinha and Lustgarten came out on top in a tight six-way contest for two open Patterson City Council seats, according to final results released Nov. 29. Counting and verification of all votes went on for more than three weeks.

Lustgarten captured the second open council seat with only eight more votes than council candidate Dennis McCord.

She replaced Smith, who was appointed to the council in 2006 and re-elected to the post in 2008. Smith finished fifth in the race, nearly 600 votes behind the leaders.

McCord had a 20-vote lead on election night before some absentee, military and provisional ballots had been counted. He saw his lead slip to just eight votes when the county registrar’s office released more results Nov. 21.

A dust-up while candidates were seeking political endorsements made the waters especially wavy, exposing a rift between Patterson’s firefighters union and Smith.

The union, which had endorsed Smith in previous elections, instead endorsed Mayor Luis Molina and council challengers Tony Camacho and Lustgarten, and Smith took to Facebook to register her dismay at the selection process. She stated there that the endorsements were predetermined.

The union denied her claims, stating that endorsements went to the best three candidates.

After her victory, Lustgarten said her top priorities are to advocate for senior citizens, with whom she has worked on the Senior Meals Task Force, and to provide a more open and inclusive city government.

She plans to push for an open-government ordinance, which she has advocated for more than a year, and said she wanted to see an interpreter available for Spanish speakers at City Council meetings.

Among Farinha’s top priorities is public safety, including an assessment of police services and upcoming contract negotiations for a contract with the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department.

Mayor Luis Molina handily won re-election against Troy McComak, garnering nearly 75 percent of the vote in the process.

McComak also ran for U.S. Congress in the June Primary Election, finishing fifth. He garnered just 2.3 percent of the vote in a bid to represent the 10th U.S. Congressional District of California.

City rife with lawsuits

The city was involved on both the offensive and the defensive end of legal action in 2012 after legal wrangling about taxes, developer fees and 2010 General Plan money came to a head.

Molina said Dec. 18 that he felt there were more legal actions than normal in 2012, but that the city hadn’t focused an abnormal amount of time handling litigation.

“I think there’s always been some level of litigation that I can remember,” he said. “There has been a legal cloud hovering for a few years now, be it the grand jury or developers.”

Such matters have caused the city administration and legal team to do a lot of research into past practices, and that will ultimately help, he said.

Near the end of the year, the city appeared headed for a fight with developers of the Westridge Business Park in western Patterson about fees related to the land where the Amazon.com logistics center is being built.

The City Council denied a Nov. 20 claim for more than $1 million against the city by people who previously owned the land.

The dispute, which regards a clause in a developer agreement implemented three years ago, may lead to a $1.4 million lawsuit against the city of Patterson by the former landowners, Fritz and Donna Schali, Kenny Buehner and Larry Buehner, the city councilman, who recused himself from deliberations on the matter.

An attorney for the developers and former landowners put the city on notice in September that they would sue the city if the council denied the claim.

They paid the fees as part of a developer agreement for infrastructure improvements, such as sewers, gutters and roads, on about 60 acres of land near Park Center Drive and Sperry Avenue.

The former landowners’ attorney, Kathleen Hollowell, wrote in a September letter to the city that the clause requiring the $1.4 million in fees was put into a developer agreement after the developer agreement was approved by the City Council in September 2008 but before the land was entitled in January 2009.

The city has since produced letters from the former landowners showing they agreed to the provision even though it was never ratified by the City Council.

The money now sits in an escrow account and will not be used until the matter is resolved, Doug White, Patterson deputy city attorney said.

On June 20, the city of Patterson filed a $175,000 lawsuit of its own against Keystone Corp., the owner of Keystone Pacific Business Park in western Patterson, for money that city officials say is owed for work on the city’s general plan in 2010.

According to documents related to the case, North Carolina-based Keystone initially promised in June 2007 to contribute $350,000 toward preparation of the city’s general plan, the comprehensive document created by community members and city leaders that outlines what the city will look like in the future.

The company made a payment of $175,000 in December 2007 but failed to make a second payment due in June 2008, according to court documents.

White said the suit kept the contract from falling off the books, as the collection is subject to a four-year statute of limitations.

Keystone’s lawyer, George Petrulakis of Modesto, said the case amounted to simple math and could be resolved along with a separate issue — developer fees that Keystone officials claim are owed by the city.

Both parties immediately placed the case on hold as the sides tried to work out a deal.

In April, Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne ruled that he wanted to look further into a $2.5 million complaint by Villa Del Lago developer Dominic Speno.

Speno filed a suit Jan. 20 in response to an October 2011 suit by the city against the developer and American Hotels Inc., which formerly managed the hotel. Patterson sought to collect more than $173,000 in back hotel taxes and late fees.

In his counter-action, Speno argued the city owed him $2.5 million because of a developer agreement about reimbursements for storm drain and flood-control improvements he made in the late 1990s. Speno forged the agreement with Stanislaus County before the city of Patterson annexed the land containing his project off Rogers Road in 2004.

Speno’s attorney, Andrew Bassak of San Francisco, stated in court documents that starting in 2005, Speno approached the city to resolve the situation, meeting with three city managers, two city attorneys and various elected officials.

White, the deputy city attorney, argued in court documents that Speno’s claim was made too long after the deal was struck and exceeded the statute of limitations for a complaint to be heard.

The matter is set for a jury trial in August.

Contact Nick Rappley at 892-6187, ext. 31, or nick@pattersonirrigator.com.

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