A year ago, after upending the Garden Grove political establishment with a razor-thin victory in the mayoral election over longtime incumbent Bruce Broadwater, Bao Nguyen made it clear he would be charting his own course as mayor.
In that regard, he has not disappointed.
Following up on campaign promises to make city government more ethical and transparent, the 36-year-old union organizer has made projects that have opened up the budgeting process and made records at City Hall more available to the public a priority.
In February, he stood alone among his council colleagues in refusing to sign a letter condemning Riverside for its sister city relationship with Can Tho, Vietnam, a move that angered many anti-communist activists in the community but endeared him to a younger generation eager to move away from overseas issues and anti-communist politics.
Then, last summer, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision to end prohibitions against gay marriage, and on the heels of his decision to run for Congress, Nguyen announced that he is gay.
In doing all of this, Nguyen has made a name for himself in the local Democratic Party and attracted new voices to City Hall that have broadened the civic discussion in Garden Grove.
Yet for all the political chutzpah Nguyen has shown in breaking away from the status quo, he has largely failed to convince any of his City Council colleagues to join him. On the council dais he is, more often than not, a coalition of one.
Nguyen’s critics on council and in the community describe him as somewhat selfish and politically naïve. They say he can be autocratic and condescending, and appears too eager to launch a political career beyond Garden Grove.
“He seems to be tone deaf as it relates to his colleagues and the community. In [Garden Grove] his constituents may be many but his supporters are few,” said Bert Ashland, a longtime resident and county parks commissioner.
Geoffrey Rineberg, a resident who voted for Nguyen, said the young mayor has “a lot to learn about reaching across the isle [sic] to work with his council members.”
Rineberg, along with others, is also disappointed that Nguyen is running for Congress less than a year into his first term. In mid-October, Nguyen announced he would enter the crowded field of candidates vying for Loretta Sanchez’s U.S. House seat.
And though Nguyen says he fully intends to serve out his full two-year term as mayor, his decision led some residents and even a fellow council member to question his commitment to Garden Grove.
“I voted for him. Liked what I saw and heard, just sad and disappointed he didn’t give [Garden Grove] his full attention before deciding to move on,” Rineberg wrote in response to a reporter’s post in a Facebook group for residents.
Not ‘Ready for Primetime’
As mayor, Nguyen has at times alienated his colleagues by presiding over the council’s public meetings like a schoolteacher, calling on quiet council members to chime in on discussions and chiding those he feels are unprepared.
During a recent study session about medical marijuana policies, Nguyen told councilman Phat Bui, who was asking staff several questions, that it “doesn’t look like you’ve done the homework,” prompting a terse exchange between the two councilman, who regularly butt heads.
“A lot of the time, Bao, the city council asks questions so that it’s public information,” Bui said. “Please show your colleagues respect.”
The mayor offered a brief apology.
Another telling scene occurred later that evening, during the council’s regular meeting, when Nguyen tried appoint Julie Vo, a resident with a background in community nonprofits, to a Planning Commission vacancy. Vo is also a strong supporter of Nguyen.
Although only the mayor has the power to make appointments, typically council members will each suggest their own candidate for the mayor to consider. The appointment is still subject to the vote of the full council.
But Nguyen’s appointment met immediate resistance from colleagues who felt he brought the name forward unilaterally without their input.
Councilman Kris Beard suggested the names of previous applicants to the commission, noting that Nguyen’s appointee has never served on a city commission and is not involved in the construction industry or real estate development.
“This is my appointment […] I’ve been voted as mayor, so that’s who I’m putting forward,” Nguyen said in response to the pushback. “This is one of the things that the mayor gets to do…why are we doing this at this point?”
Rather than having his appointment voted down, Nguyen pulled the name altogether and said he would find a new appointee.
“He actually believed it was his right to appoint whom ever he wanted,” Ashland said in a Facebook post, regarding the Planning Commission appointment. “He isn’t ready for Primetime.”
Nguyen said in a phone interview that he is open to compromise and maintains a cordial relationship with council members, but that they have to be willing to meet him half way, by openly discussing their views with him under the public eye.
“Change isn’t easy – I know there are a lot of people, in the city, our constituents, who expect to see these changes. They should see that I’m making a good faith effort,” Nguyen said.
He said he conducts council meetings so that council members are accountable to their word, and so that residents understand what’s going on.
In regards to his verbal tiff with Bui last week, Nguyen said his colleague came to the meeting unprepared. “The question he asked was already in the written report and was delivered by the acting city attorney…so I’m not sure he’s paying attention. And people should know that,” Nguyen said.
He speculated that some council members say little at meetings because of how his predecessor, Broadwater, had run city council meetings — quickly and with little discussion.
“It shows how things have been done in the past and council members have not been empowered,” Nguyen said.
Beard, who has voted with the mayor on a number of issues, said he disagrees with that conjecture. “I’ve always been open to discussion and debate with all my colleagues,” Beard wrote in an email.
New Voices and More Transparency
While Nguyen’s personality may rankle some longtime residents, he has drawn younger faces to City Hall and appealed to those who feel Garden Grove has long been dominated by the same voices and personalities.
He’s also appointed several residents with little or no previous experience with city government to commissions in his effort to change the make-up of local politics.
Josh McIntosh, a resident who sits on the Neighborhood Improvement and Conservation Commission, said he is glad to see the mayor introduce new faces to the city’s commissions.
“It’s no secret that Bao is a more progressive mayor and has challenged the status quo in our city. I appreciate that he has made steps to rid us of the moniker ‘The Alabama of Orange County,'” said McIntosh. “Our good ol’ boy system has been rocked and I hope that we do not turn a 180 when he leaves the dais in 2016.”
A number of projects have been on the city’s long to-do list, such as an upgrade of the website and public records system, have become top priorities under Nguyen.
Residents can now submit complaints and questions online and make and review public records act requests through the city website. Where residents previously had to wait for budget season to ask questions about the city’s finances, now the city is piloting software that makes that information available online in real time.
Nguyen has also received praise from many residents, supporters and skeptics alike, in July when he asked the city council to approve a letter opposing the Orange County Water District’s plans for a desalination plant in Huntington Beach.
That was the first time a city affected by the project, aside from Huntington Beach, had given residents a space to debate its merits, drawing lobbyists, environmentalists and concerned residents from all over the county.
The majority of the council was reluctant to discuss the issue at all. By the end of the heated meeting, although councilman Kris Beard said he was generally opposed to the project, the vote was 4-1, with Nguyen the only no vote, to tone down the letter’s outright objection to the desalination plant and express more general concerns about the project’s costs and environmental impacts.
“Mayor Nguyen was looking for the council to act decisively on behalf of the [Garden Grove] residents who voiced their opinion quite clearly. Instead, he got a motion to ‘think about it,'” said resident Andrea Perez.
Some of Nguyen’s troubles may simply be the result of political turnover.
Beard said that city councils always change when new people are elected, and opposition to Nguyen is hardly just city council politics.
“Council meeting minutes will mostly likely indicate that the vast majority of council actions and decisions have received a unanimous vote,” Beard said. “The mayor has brought forth some of his own initiatives that have had conflicting reviews among the community not just the city council.”
Dale Soeffner, a Nguyen supporter, said that while he is frustrated by the inability of the council to work together, he sees the mayor as among the first “generation to make a change in the old conservative ‘orange curtain.'”
“The politics of the city needed to change…but as is the case in most issues, people don’t like change, especially those with some bit of power,” said Soeffner. “The mayor’s agenda seems to be a bit far reaching for the politics of the city but I see it as the way of the future generation.”
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.