A ballot measure to increase the Westminster mayor’s term from two to four years, with no term limits, will go before voters in the June 5 primary election.
Councilmembers voted 3-2 Wednesday to approve the ballot measure, with Councilmembers Margie Rice and Sergio Contreras voting no.
Councilmember Tyler Diep, who proposed the ballot measure, said extending the mayor’s term would put the mayor on equal footing with other council members, who serve four-year terms, reduce the constant pressure on the mayor to campaign, and provide more time to focus on policy and governance.
“After serving in public office for 12 years, my observation is too many times we in public office are under constant political pressure,” Diep said. “When someone like my colleague or my mayor is constantly concerned about running for re-election every other year, it does affect his or her ability to govern.”
But former city councilwoman Diana Carey called the move a “self-serving attempt at power consolidation” and called for the city to move to a rotating mayor system.
“It [the ballot measure] reduces transparency and responsiveness to the public,” Carey told the city council.
If voters approve the ballot measure in June, it would take effect during the next scheduled election in November.
Mayor Tri Ta, who will run for his fourth term as mayor in November, said little about the ballot measure before voting for it.
Nor did he comment on a remark he made to Nguoi Viet Daily News in late December, where he said he would support introducing term limits to address perceptions of corruption in the city.
There are no term limits for the city council or mayor.
The issue drew a crowd that packed the city council chambers, including several reporters from Vietnamese-language media.
More than half of the speakers opposed the ballot measure, calling it a “power grab” and waste of taxpayer dollars, in light of the one-cent sales tax increase passed by voters in Nov. 2016 that supporters said would save the city from an impending bankruptcy. Only one member of the current city council, Rice, supported the tax increase.
Placing the item on the June 5 ballot will cost the city $85,000. Although the city staff report on the ballot measure did not include the cost of placing the item on the November general election ballot, city officials later said it would cost about $10,000.
“I walked the streets and got people to tax themselves because we’re going bankrupt,” said Rice. “To spend $85,000 on an election that is not needed, I will not do that.”
Resident Roxanne Chow called the ballot measure an “attack on democracy” for taking away voters’ right to elect a mayor every two years.
“This is self-serving and if you want it so bad, to push this through this June, write the city a check for $85,000,” said Chow, who works for state Assemblyman Tom Daly but said she was not speaking in any official capacity.
A few people brought up a 14-page complaint by former police chief Kevin Baker, documenting alleged corruption by the city council. The city fought disclosure of the complaint, and only released the document after a lawsuit by Voice of OC. The city paid $120,000 in attorney’s fees to Voice of OC’s attorney, Kelly Aviles, as a result of losing its fight to keep it secret.
“I do not want to end up with a mayor who runs every four years. It leaves the door open for us to become another Maywood,” said Jill Dominguez. “This is the same council that put us into financial bankruptcy that required us to spend one percent of our money because you haven’t figured out how to generate money.”
State Senator Janet Nguyen (R-Garden Grove), who represented Westminster as a county supervisor and now as senator for the state’s 34th Senate district, called the ballot measure “hasty” in a letter to the city council.
Nguyen called on the council to adopt term and campaign contribution limits.
“To further complicate the inclusion of this agenda item, residents are also questioning the timing of this proposal which follows recent allegations of wrongdoing at the City of Westminster,” wrote Nguyen. “While the two items are distinct, they have nevertheless created an atmosphere of distrust and have eroded confidence in your Council.”
Resident Andrew Tran said he isn’t against moving to a four-year term for mayor, but would rather see the item appear on the November ballot to save money.
He also wants to see the council enact term and campaign contribution limits.
“If you stay too long in power, people have too much influence on the city manager, on the police and on the staff,” Tran said.
Trang Nguyen, another resident, supported the ballot measure, arguing that it would reduce the cost of elections for the city and give the mayor more time to get to know the city’s constituents.
“Holding elections every two years not only increases the cost of elections, but forces officials to divert valuable time away from governing to campaigning,” said Trang Nguyen.
While most Orange County cities rotate the position of mayor among councilmembers, Westminster has directly elected a mayor since voters approved a ballot measure in 1984.
Councilwoman Kimberly Ho said voters have not had a chance to reevaluate the mayor’s role since then.
“Let’s put it on the ballot for you to choose,” Ho said.
Diep, a Republican who is running for state Assembly in district 72, suggested that several of the public speakers were motivated by political opportunism.
“In terms of some of you who are here because you recognize a political opportunity…I counted four people who under no circumstance would give some of us a fair shake,” Diep said. “Two staffers and two political candidates.”
He also said some of the speakers Wednesday night who accused him of being “undemocratic” also spoke at a city council meeting in the summer of 2016 demanding the council place the sales tax increase, known as Measure SS, on the ballot to give voters a chance to make the choice themselves.
“Two years later they come back and say, you’re terrible, how dare you…take away my ability to vote,” Diep said. “At least be consistent.”
Contact Thy Vo at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.