Westminster City Council Approves Thinned-Out Ethics Code

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Westminster City Council at its March 27, 2019 meeting.

Westminster officials now have a set of ethics guidelines to follow while doing city business, the result of a months-long battle between council members over whether a City Hall struggling to move past years of corruption allegations needs ethical reform.

But the one-page ethics code approved last Wednesday, May 22, is much shorter than the 12-page draft that ethical reform advocates, led by City Councilman Tai Do and commissioner David Johnson, had originally proposed.

Click here to see the difference between the new code (Attachment 2) and the initial draft (Attachment 3).

That’s because Do’s direct political opponents on the dais, council members Kimberly Ho, Charlie Nguyen, and Mayor Tri Ta, endorsed a rewritten version of the code that no longer contained statements denouncing certain ethical violations like nepotism and abuse of public resources. They used their majority vote to push the more generalized set of guidelines through.

Do and his only other council member ally on the issue, Sergio Contreras, abstained on the revised guidelines.

The now-official code is just one page long with over 25 clauses deleted from the original draft. Johnson, who had been appointed by the council in February to help author it, said some of the deleted clauses denounced wrongdoings that he says some council members “were already guilty of.”

“I assume that they don’t want to be held accountable,” Johnson said during public comment, frequently referring to Ho, Nguyen and Ta that night as the “Gang of Three” — a term that’s caught on with some members of the public during council meetings and in online Facebook discussion forums centered around Westminster city politics.

Ho defended the revised code during the meeting, saying the original draft possessed an inherent conflict of interest because Johnson serves on the city’s Community Services and Recreation Commission, at the appointment of Do.

“When I appointed Johnson” to write the draft, “he was not commissioner,” said Ho, who called the original draft “a political stunt.”

Ho and Nguyen accused Johnson at an April 24 council meeting of writing his own rules. Johnson told Voice of OC after that meeting he “finished writing the code a few days prior” to his appointment.

The ethics code debate began in February when Do publicly read aloud Voice of OC coverage on corruption claims leveled against city council members in 2016 by former police chief Kevin Baker. Do argued that a code of ethics was the only way for Westminster to “make peace with the past.”

Ho, Nguyen and Ta at the time scrutinized Do’s proposal, and tabled the subject for months while maintaining that Do was playing the ethics issue for political gain.

But the Council’s May 22 vote came after numerous members of the public accused Ho and Nguyen of consolidating family power over the city when they appointed each other’s children to city commissions.

Nguyen appointed Ho’s son, Weston Seid, to the city’s Planning Commission at a Jan. 29 special meeting, during which Ho subsequently appointed Nguyen’s daughter, Christine, to the Community Services and Recreation Commission.

Nguyen defended his appointment of Seid in an email, calling Ho’s son a “young, educated and energetic individual” with an “excellent academic record.”

Ho did not respond to requests for comment.

Do, who has become one of City Hall’s most outspoken ethical reform advocates, said at the May 22 meeting that the new code sends the wrong message to the public that “council members are above the law.”

“What a shame. It’s a sad day,” he added.

All city employees — along with elected and appointed officials — will now be required to sign a form acknowledging the ethics code at the time of their swearing-in.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.