A little-known organization based out of a family-owned pharmacy in Westminster, the CEAVA Foundation, will run one of the most important community events of the year for the local Vietnamese community, the annual Lunar New Year celebration or Tet Festival.

The CEAVA foundation is relatively new. It registered with the state May 3, about a week before the county Board of Supervisors voted to approve a contract on May 9 for the group to run another three-day event, the Summer Freedom Festival.

While other festivals have been hosted by established community groups, relatively little is known about the CEAVA Foundation. The organization is based out of Kim Pharmacy on Brookhurst Street in Westminster, and is headed by Nghia Xuan Nguyen, an economist and frequent commentator for Vietnamese-language media.

Nguyen did not return calls and emails seeking information about the organization. The foundation’s application for nonprofit status is still pending with the state and the group has not filed any founding documents describing its board or purpose.

First District Supervisor Andrew Do’s office, which is helping to organize the event, also did not return multiple calls for comment.

In an appearance on Little Saigon TV in June, Nguyen said the organization is aimed at preserving Vietnamese culture and arts for younger generations of Vietnamese Americans. The annual Tet celebration marks the beginning of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.

It’s unclear how much the 2018 Tet Festival, which will take place February 16-18, will cost taxpayers, as the county has not provided an estimate of the event’s cost.

The Summer Freedom Festival – a three-day event hosted in August at the same venue, Mile Square Park – cost the Parks department about $379,000.

The organization is not required to report its expenses to the county, so it’s unclear how much it spent or recouped in sponsorships for the Summer Freedom Festival. It also won’t be required to report expenses for the Tet Festival, according to OC Parks Director Stacy Blackwood.

While the county will pay for permits and staff salaries for the event, CEAVA is responsible for handling all the entertainment, including a fire cracker show, lion dancing, music, food vendors, marketing and carnival rides, according to a staff report and county spokeswoman Carrie Braun.

The organization will pay for private security for the event, while all law enforcement costs – such as emergency services and traffic control– will be paid for by the county, Blackwood said.

Fierce Competition

Previous Tet Festivals – run by various community groups – have struggled with debt and political controversies.

For nearly three decades, the most prominent Tet Festival in Orange County was run by a student group, the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations of Southern California, or UVSA SoCal.

But after the city of Garden Grove declined to allow student group to host the festival in 2013 – the city council raised questions about the group’s finances and asked it to pay a new $75,000 fee – the students moved the event to the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

In 2015, two UVSA members were also ousted for allegedly embezzling over $118,000  from the event.

Since then, other competing festivals have emerged in Little Saigon, including a 2016 festival hosted by the Vietnamese Community of Southern California, which also was sponsored by Do’s office.

The competition for visitors is seen by many in the local Vietnamese community as divisive during a holiday centered around family, tradition and goodwill – and prompted criticism that the event sponsored by Do was trying to undercut the student group by hosting it on the same weekend.

The festival in Fountain Valley offered free admission, while the student festival has historically charged admission as a fundraiser for local nonprofit groups.

In February the county-sponsored Tet Festival will also be on the same weekend as the UVSA festival in Costa Mesa.

The 2016 Fountain Valley festival organizers also were publicly criticized by several of the event’s vendors for failing to pay them on time, resulting in a lawsuit by one vendor, who claims she still is owed $9,285 by festival organizers.

Do and his then-chief of staff, Nick LeCong, are named in that lawsuit, although both are petitioning to be removed from the lawsuit.

The Vietnamese Community of Southern California also still owes the Sheriff’s Department $10,360.98 for law enforcement costs related to the 2016 festival in Fountain Valley.

How Much Will It Cost?

At a meeting of the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 22, when supervisors approved a contract for CEAVA Foundation to host the Tet Festival, supervisors raised questions about the cost of county-run events.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett questioned why there was no financial impact listed for the Tet Festival on a staff report.

“I’m really supportive of this great event but before anything comes to us on the agenda, we do need to have the financial impacts,” Bartlett said. “It’s something that should be done for all the events in all the districts.”

Do said supervisors haven’t questioned the budgets for other events in the past.

“In the past, we have approved how many events – we don’t hold up those projects spending a specific outcome or expenditure plan,” Do said. “As we know, things are kind of fluid when you plan for something that big…those things don’t come out about usually until the last month before the event.”

“I just think that there is a precedent that we’ve been following to try to get as much private, nonprofit collaboration to ease the financial burden on the county – and that’s exactly what we’re doing here,” Do said.

According to county CEO Frank Kim, his office does not conduct financial analyses for every event on the county calendar.

“We could do that, but it’s a massive lift,” Kim said.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer also suggested that events that come on the agenda include information about fiscal impacts.

Spitzer said there is a discrepancy in funding from the Parks department for each district, with Bartlett’s South County district having far more park space than Do’s First District, which includes the cities of Garden Grove, Westminster, Santa Ana and Fountain Valley.

“There’s not a whole lot that OC Parks can do in my district other than to plan events,” Do said in response.

Bartlett said that there should be a distinction between events based on their scale.

Do pointed to an event held by OC Public Works and Bartlett’s office, a grand opening for the La Pata road extension in San Clemente, which cost the county $171,749 for an event that lasted four hours. Bartlett’s office raised $65,065 in private sponsorships for the event.

“I don’t remember getting analysis for any event. La Pata, when I saw the total it hit me hard,” Do said. “Let’s put things in perspective here.”

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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