Patterson City Manager Ken Irwin confirmed that an independent investigation is currently underway regarding complaints of conduct involving Councilwoman Sheree Lustgarten and allegations of abuse towards patrons of the Hammon Senior Center during a phone conversation late last week.
"All I can say is that there is an investigation," Irwin said. "Whether or not there will be anything reportable has yet to be determined."
Irwin dispelled any rumors that the investigation had wrapped up, and quelled any inkling that the investigation’s results would be disseminated to the public, stating that Lustgarten is not a public employee of the city.
"There is no report at this time," Irwin added.
Former City Manager Rod Butler apparently rubber-stamped the go-ahead for the investigation before he stepped down from his office for a job in his hometown of Upland in Southern California late last year.
According to Irwin, the city has been billed a total of $880.00 for the investigation, while early speculations in the process projected numbers of up to $20,000.
According to regular patrons of the Hammon Senior Center, as well as members of the Senior Board of Directors and the Senior Meals Task Force, there couldn’t be a more inappropriate direction of city funds and attention than towards the investigation into Councilwoman Lustgarten.
Their first-hand reports of the situation claim that any and all complaints regarding Lustgarten have been corroborated by a small handful of seniors and community members who have been attempting to publicly smear the council member for her efforts at the Hammon Senior Center.
"Everything they have been saying is a no-good lie," 66-year-old Vicki Martinez said of the complainants while eating a meal provided by the task force Thursday, Dec. 18, at the Hammon Senior Center.
"Every Thursday, Sheree’s in there working her butt off," Martinez added. "If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have this meal."
The Senior Meals Task Force was formed to fill the void after one of the daily meals provided by the Howard Training Center was dropped. The task force members, not wishing for seniors to go hungry, garnered the support and funding to take on the feeding of 60 seniors once a week on Thursdays, preparing the meals themselves in the kitchen at the Hammon Senior Center.
Much of that work and effort on the task force comes from Lustgarten herself, who researches ways to provide the meals at the lowest cost, and even picks up that expense to be reimbursed after providing receipts for the purchases.
Spending about $125 a week to feed 60 seniors, or approximately $2 per meal, can be a challenge for the task force at times, but they continue to provide a variety of healthy meals that far surpass the quality of those provided the rest of the week by the Howard Training Center, according to senior center guests.
Patrons praise the quality of the meals provided by the task force so often that they have suggested that the Senior Meals Task Force find a way to provide meals for the senior center for all five days of the week, fully replacing the meals provided by the Howard Training Center.
"Before all this started, this room used to be full," Martinez said as she described the scene at the Hammon Senior Center.
"On bingo, there’s only 20 or so players, but there used to be more," Martinez added.
"They’re sick of getting yelled at, and it’s not from Sheree," Martinez said as she alluded to the troublemaking group of seniors.
Martinez, along with many other members of the Senior Board of Directors and the task force, have since come together to show support for Lustgarten in defense of recent allegations towards her.
Former Councilwoman Annette Smith, who lost her council seat to Lustgarten in the 2012 election, says she decided to become a voice in the matter after fielding a handful of complaints from seniors and community members about Lustgarten. It was an account she heard second-hand about Lustgarten apparently grabbing some bingo cards from an elderly person’s hands that spurned her into action in April of 2014.
"That’s when I decided to get off my sofa, and go down there and see what’s going on, because the city wasn’t doing anything," Smith said in a phone interview. "I’m not afraid to do that."
Smith believes the city hired an investigator in May, finished their report in November, and wanted to wait until after the election to release the report because they didn’t want it to look like a political smear. The city then pushed it back to be released after the holidays, according to Smith.
"I don’t care what day of the week it is," Smith said. "It was going on eight months, so it wasn’t fodder for an election or anything like that."
Councilwoman Lustgarten was quick to call foul play when asked of her take on the situation during a phone interview conducted last month.
"There have been five or six people that are friends with Annette Smith. They cause problems with the Senior Meals Task Force," Lustgarten said.
"There has been one group that has been hammering and hammering against me. They started filing complaints to staff. Then you’ve got these women getting staff involved and running up and complaining about immature issues. Staff was getting upset."
"I have not been abusive towards anybody," Lustgarten said. "It’s not true."
Lustgarten feels that her political opponents have been attempting to derail her efforts to help the seniors.
The council member reiterated that she has worked with seniors prior to being elected to office and got involved with helping at the senior center because it was needed.
"Here’s the dirty pool. I feel really sad about this, but seniors vote a lot and others in the political arena didn’t like it," Lustgarten said of her volunteering efforts. "It may be too good for politics."
During the Irrigator’s interview with Lustgarten, the councilwoman expressed her concerns with the manner in which the investigation was conducted.
Lustgarten, catching wind of the situation, approached City Attorney Doug White, saying that "if there’s an investigation into me abusing seniors, then I want an attorney, because those are serious allegations," at which time the attorney agreed.
"Nothing ever happened," Lustgarten said. "Nobody ever said anything to me. Next thing I know, the day after the election, I get an email from an investigator saying they’re doing an internal investigation from the happenings at the senior center.
"I asked Doug, ‘Who else knows about this?’ He said the rest of the council."
Apparently, according to Lustgarten, outgoing city manager Rod Butler wrote a letter to the other four members of the council, but left her out of the notification.
When it came down to interviewing the parties involved with the complaints at the senior center, Lustgarten again noted a lack of equality in handling the situation.
Lustgarten claims that certain members of the Parks and Recreation Department at the senior center were taking complaints from those that were against the efforts of the Senior Meals Task Force, while members of the task force themselves were denied an opportunity to have their story heard.
"Not one person from the task force has been interviewed," Lustgarten said. "So this investigation is one-sided."
Lustgarten went on to explain how she scheduled a meeting with city’s attorneys Doug White and Tom Hallinan, and since they didn’t want to talk to the task force formally, she brought them to the meeting, where, she said, the attorneys didn’t expect to meet the task force.
Lustgarten posed the question, "Was their opinion considered in the investigation?"
"From the beginning, since two years ago, Annette’s been trying to squash this," Lustgarten said. "It’s sad, because all I’m doing is volunteering for a good cause and they want to take me down for that."
Elias Funez can be reached at 209-892-6187 ext. 31 or firstname.lastname@example.org.