Infighting threatens Westminster’s leadership and its Vietnamese American council majority

Westminster residents waited a long time for his or her Metropolis Council to grow to be the nation’s first with a Vietnamese American majority. Now some are watching with rising frustration and anger as that majority threatens to implode.

Metropolis Council conferences, on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month, have degenerated into tag-team verbal brawls. One evening, it’s accusations of operating a dictatorship. Different nights, it’s a public official, in tears, threatening to sue a colleague.

Then there are the costs of nepotism, the countercharges of slander, and one council member’s Fb rant that rekindled bruised emotions and bitter reminiscences relationship to the Vietnam Battle.

It’s grow to be must-watch TV for residents of the Orange County metropolis, who’re following the explosive drama on native cable. The infighting has gotten so dangerous that it virtually has paralyzed the Metropolis Council and spurred recall efforts towards all 5 of its members.

Michael Tran, a 20-year resident, says that as a substitute of specializing in points just like the area’s reasonably priced housing disaster or the potential shake-up of a preferred cellular dwelling park, his metropolis is “stuck in never-ending arguments between leaders who are like actors trying to learn their roles.”

“I don’t need to watch much Netflix,” Tran says of the infinite melodrama. “I have this.”

The nastiness on the five-member council performs out between the so-called “gang of three” — present Mayor Tri Ta and agency allies Kimberly Ho and Chi Charlie Nguyen — versus the remaining two, newcomer Tai Do and veteran Sergio Contreras, who has held management roles in Westminster for about 15 years.


Councilman Tai Do, whose day job is working as a police officer in Lengthy Seashore, says, “My goal is to bring trust and accountability back to City Hall.”

(Liz Moughon/Los Angeles Occasions)

Do sees himself as a reformer keen to tackle what he regards because the cronyish and ethically questionable habits of the council majority. The three-member majority views Do as a grandstander who’s attacking them to raise his personal profile.

The trio often chide Do for what they deem “unacceptable” habits, beginning together with his insistence on making a code of ethics for a metropolis that, in accordance with Ta, the mayor, “operates well” and “already has procedures set up for ethical standards and training.”

“We respect each other and we did not have disagreements until the new person came on the council,” he added mentioned, referring to Do, who was elected final November to certainly one of 5 at-large seats.

Former Mayor Margie Rice, a 60-year resident who retains tabs on the motion in individual and from her dwelling TV, describes council conferences as “a circus.”

“Those people take up precious time conducting business other than city business, and you never know when they will detour from the agenda with their personal issues,” she mentioned.

Tran thinks the council’s antics may hinder the Vietnamese American group’s rising political clout in elements of Orange County.

“Vietnamese voters have waited so long to see their numbers multiply in terms of leadership,” he mentioned. “And just because four people can’t play nice, we may lose valuable voices and the ability to make positive changes.”

Management churn has been an ongoing problem in Westminster, which has had 10 metropolis managers within the final 14 years, and 5 police chiefs within the final eight years. 4 of the 5 present council members are Vietnamese People, in a metropolis of 98,000 that’s of greater than 50% Vietnamese ancestry.

Because the recall effort signifies, residents are divided.

Linda Nguyen, a clerical employee from Westminster, mentioned that she has witnessed Ta, Nguyen (no relation) and Ho at public occasions and appreciates “how they carry themselves, representing our culture. They are symbols of success and I’m glad they’re showing Orange County the power of the Viet vote.”

However Roger Fierce, a 57-year resident, strongly helps Do as a result of he thinks Do has the integrity and essential spine to push “urgent” reforms.

“Our city is out of control,” Fierce mentioned.

The seeds of disagreement sprouted early.

Do, who holds a day job as a Lengthy Seashore police officer, mentioned that he primarily based his election marketing campaign on a platform of transparency, prompted by a 2016 lawsuit filed by former Police Chief Kevin Baker accusing council members, together with Ta, of corruption. The case highlighted “intimidation and revenge” concentrating on each residents and staff. Town denied the allegations, and officers finally settled out of court docket for $500,000.

“No one dared to ask hard questions about what’s been happening to lose the trust of the people in Westminster,” Do mentioned. “My goal is to bring trust and accountability back to City Hall.”

Do pushed for a written code of ethics that finally prompted Ho, a enterprise proprietor, to tearfully query whether or not her new colleague was implying that the extra skilled council members had carried out one thing flawed. At a February assembly, she warned him, “If you don’t watch what you say, I’m going to send a defamation lawsuit your way.”

In the end, the council adopted a one-page code of ethics in late Could, watered down from the 12-page draft supported by Do and written with the assistance of resident David Johnson, whom Do later appointed to the town’s Group Companies and Recreation Fee.

Do and Contreras abstained from the vote, prompting Ta, in an interview, to assault Do for “pushing and pushing for this, and in the end he didn’t take a stand.”

“It was a waste of time,” Ta mentioned. “I still believe the citizens can see through the new person. He has no vision or grand plan while I’ve been trying to serve fairly — and to work with all communities.”

Councilman Nguyen, an engineer, backed the mayor, saying of Do: “He just brings up side issues, not relevant issues. He’s creating distractions and he is recruiting people to take our seats from us.”

Confronted now with a recall, Nguyen mentioned that if anybody has to step down, the victims will probably be “the residents who we are working for as we focus on developing more business for the city.”

For a recall to look on the first election poll in March 2020, supporters want to gather signatures from 20% of Westminster’s registered voters — totaling eight,736 folks. About 200 volunteers from totally different political events have signed as much as help in that work, in accordance with organizers, and coaching started final week.

Johnson, whom Do appointed to a fee and who later helped launch Westminster United to unseat Ho, Nguyen and Ta, mentioned that he and proponents posted 4 polls on Fb teams and the NextDoor social media app asking if residents had been in favor of a recall. Total, recall supporters embody folks of their 20s to 70s, Johnson mentioned, representing all of Westminster’s main ethnic teams.

“Yet this is not about ethnicity,” added Johnson, a 12-year resident. Initially, he mentioned, the recall effort was spurred by Vietnamese veterans upset that Ta had backed a proclamation honoring a Vietnamese actress in a human trafficking film made in communist Vietnam. Photographs of the revered South Vietnamese flag had been faraway from the decision — a perceived insult to Vietnamese who fought towards communist forces.

“This has nothing to do with Little Saigon politics,” Johnson mentioned. “We need replacement candidates who have a servant leadership heart, a critical-thinking mind and represent everyone.”

Each Nguyen and Ta say they respects voters’ rights to provoke a recall. “I have always tried my very best to represent everyone in the city,” Ta added, “and even if this is a part-time job, I have been available 24/7.”

Lou DeSipio, a UC Irvine professor of political science who research ethnic politics, mentioned that his college students referred to as his consideration to the drama in Westminster.

“I’ve never seen this broad of a recall, which I believe is unprecedented in California,” he mentioned. “Certainly, everyone has their principles, but the nature of a small group like that is they should be able to work out their differences.”

DeSipio urged that such a sweeping recall effort, concentrating on all 5 members, could also be “too complex for people to process. It may alienate voters.” The council’s combative politics, he continued, could also be a legacy of Vietnamese People having been “excluded from politics for too long.”

“Sometimes, when you finally get into a representative position, you still have that street fighter mentality that it’s hard to let go,” he mentioned. “They need to learn to make the transition into coalition builders.”

Tony Lam, the primary Vietnamese American elected to political workplace within the U.S. when he received a Westminster council seat in 1992, mentioned he’s been shocked by the actions of present leaders.

“They embarrass themselves,” he mentioned. “I am not taking sides, but I’m calling on them to refrain from fighting.”

Lam and different residents are also vital of a transfer by the bulk trio in June to vary how council members can introduce gadgets on a gathering agenda.

In earlier years, any of the 5 may ask the town supervisor to schedule an merchandise on the agenda for dialogue. Now, the trio requested for ideas to be voiced throughout council conferences and a majority of the 5 has to agree earlier than any gadgets may be positioned on a future agenda. The mayor would nonetheless have the fitting to introduce gadgets and not using a majority vote.

Ho and Ta keep that the revision is essential to keep away from having council members waste time on non-issues or frivolous issues.

Contreras and Do fought the concept vigorously, stressing that it may hamper their work with residents since their three colleagues successfully may display them out from deliberations — or block any motions they may attempt to introduce.

“It sounds like totalitarianism,” Contreras instructed Ta in a June assembly. “You are shutting out the minority who elected us.”

Contreras, a former Westminster college board member who was born and raised within the metropolis, mentioned he’s fearful infighting “will paralyze us. Our job is to bring people together, but I’m just caught in the crossfire.”

He believes that he and his colleagues, who earn a stipend of about $800 a month, ought to flip their focus to elevating income and discovering methods to make Westminster safer. “It’s tragic, it really is. Don’t forget we all live here. We share the same roads, same city services.”

Rice, the previous mayor, and different residents even have accused Ho and Nguyen of nepotism after they elevated one another’s kids to metropolis commissions final January.

Nguyen appointed Weston Seid, Ho’s son, to Westminster’s Planning Fee, and Ho appointed Nguyen’s daughter, Christine, to the Group Companies and Recreation Fee. Opponents rallied, accusing each officers of attempting to consolidate energy for his or her households within the metropolis.

“They’re doing damn well what they want to do, they don’t care what the public says,” Rice mentioned, including that she helps recalling the trio.

Underlying the town’s current tensions are decades-old divisions and lingering wounds from the Vietnam Battle period. Do stirred them up when, following the June 12 vote limiting agenda gadgets, he posted on Fb that “Westminster is officially now Ho Chi Minh City.”

His phrases, alluding to the renaming of Saigon by the victorious North Vietnamese, sparked Ta to name an emergency assembly to debate the “damaging comments,” which he mentioned introduced again ache for the tens of 1000’s of fellow Vietnamese who fled their communist homeland.

The trio finally authorized a information launch attacking Do’s description, reassuring residents that the council has no intention of fixing Westminster’s motto, “All American City,” into “any unacceptable communist city.”

However with the continuing drama, DeSipio believes that “all sides are tainted.”

“This is a game of one-upping each other, and none of them knows how to back down,” he mentioned. “We’ll see what happens to representation, but hopefully, in a few years, for Vietnamese Americans born here there will be political realism to unite. Meanwhile, their community could suffer loss.”

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