Allies on Westminster Council Add to Their Power Over the Agenda

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

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

The Westminster City Council’s majority, following a raucous meeting, now can decide what issues can be discussed in public meetings, under a new policy that could consolidate council members’ power over political opponents and agenda-setting.

It’s a policy that Councilman Sergio Contreras called “totalitarian” and “a dictatorship item” during the Wednesday meeting, accusing majority faction council members Kimberly Ho, Charlie Nguyen and Mayor Tri Ta of “shutting out the minority.”

“You cannot let this happen, man,” Contreras said, facing Ta during the meeting.

“This is absolutely beyond extreme,” he continued. This has gone too far. The first Vietnamese mayor that destroyed democracy in Westminster. I’m talking to you directly because I have never done that. I’ve been here for almost seven years.”

Do not let this move forward,” Contreras added, as Ta showed no facial reaction. I know you’re not like that.”

Residents packed the council chambers with some forced to stand behind in the back. Those who opposed the new policy shouted in English and Vietnamese while the Council prepared to vote.

The new rule — passed by Ho, Nguyen, and Ta — bars anyone on the dais from placing an item on a future public meeting agenda without the approval of three council members.

The request and approval of an item for future discussion has to happen at the closing comments portion of a council meeting, and can’t be discussed at length by council members in order to comply with the state’s Ralph M. Brown Act public meetings law.

And the rule won’t apply to the mayor, who under the policy can unilaterally place an item on a future agenda without other council members’ consent.

Council members Contreras and Tai Do — who have clashed for months with the majority faction by pushing for public discussions around ethical reform and transparency at a City Hall that faces many corruption allegations — voted against the policy.

The new rule means Contreras and Do could be shut out of introducing policies opposed by the majority faction, according to multiple people at City Hall.

Ta defended the policy, saying meetings over the last six months have unraveled into constant bickering between council members over allegations of corruption and personal character attacks, while issues around the city’s budget woes and needed improvements to city services go unaddressed.

“It’s really unfortunate,” Ta said during the meeting. “I want to see the city move forward.”

Ho, who introduced the policy’s majority approval requirement, said it will make meetings run more efficiently, and would “protect the interests of the residents by limiting individual political agendas, so that we reflect the community’s interests and not anyone’s personal interests.”

“This ensures that there is a true interest by this council on topics before consuming resources of time to prepare such agenda items,” Ho said, adding the city would now be able to focus on issues that are “truly important to the community.”

“Ever since (Do) joined the Council last December he has not approached me, even once, to express any concerns or suggest any solutions we might be able to work on together,” Ho added in a later email. “Instead … you will see that he immediately brought his items and comments which directly attacked us.”

Ho maintains the new policy “will not hinder the public in any way,” and that if Do “or any or any other council member presents an idea which is clearly in the city’s best interest, then I will certainly support putting it on the agenda. This political posturing just has to stop.”

Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu made similar changes to agenda-setting requirements on his City Council in February, barring council members from placing an item on the agenda without the approval of two other council members.

Sidhu also was accused of silencing the council minority.

But Westminster’s rules go further, requiring a council majority to OK items for discussion.

“I must say that I’m speechless,” Do said during the meeting. “This agenda (item) tonight is purely to shut down any opposition that does not agree with the majority of the city council.”

“This is your legacy?” one man shouted at the dais from the audience.

Previously, none of the city’s five council members needed the consent of anyone else on the dais to bring up an item for discussion in public meetings.

That enabled Do, Contreras and their supporters to keep the conversation around ethical reform alive on the Council for months, angering Ho, Nguyen and Ta.

It was Do who initiated the months-long debate over whether the city needed a code of ethics and conduct, by placing a proposal to establish one on the agenda in February.

His efforts put him squarely at odds with Ho, Nguyen and Ta, who maintained there was no misconduct at City Hall to rectify and that Do was playing the ethics issue for political gain.

The ensuing debate frequently turned council meetings over the next few months into a series of personal attacks and accusations of corruption, misconduct and nepotism on the dais.

Ho, Nguyen and Ta partly settled the debate in late May by striking down Do’s proposed 12-page draft of the code of ethics and conduct in favor of a thinned-out, one-page code that left out guidelines on misconduct like nepotism and abuse of public resources. This was after they used their majority to table the subject for months.

But Do had other ways of bringing Ho, Nguyen and Ta back under scrutiny.

On Wednesday’s agenda, Do placed a request to rescind his January vote approving the appointments of Ho’s son and Nguyen’s daughter to two different city commissions, arguing he was not made aware of the appointees’ relation to their parents. Those appointments have since prompted members of the public to accuse Ho and Nguyen of trading nepotism favors.

Do’s request forced Ho and Nguyen to defend their appointment of each other’s children in front of the public.

Ho described her son, Weston Seid, as an “independent adult” who is “responsible for himself,” and called Do’s move a “political ploy” during the meeting.

“He wants to discredit me by exploiting this process. It is improper and abusive,” she added.

“It’s not nepotism,” Nguyen argued. “These people are volunteers.”

Westminster city commissioners are paid.

Do also brought a code of conduct back for possible council adoption, after it was excluded from the ethics code adopted in May. The council majority on Wednesday opted instead to post its current conflict of interest code on the city website, with Contreras and Do abstaining.

But items like those centered on ethics and accountability on the dais could now be blocked from future council discussion under the new agenda-setting policy.

“You have absolute power in this city,” Do said to Ta during the meeting. “You can pass any city ordinance. You can approve any project in this city.”

Do likened the majority’s move to a “communist takeover.”

“You don’t deserve the honor to be called ‘Mayor’ or ‘Vice Mayor,’ anymore,” Do said to Ta and Ho. “I’d really like to see you pass this agenda item, so the whole world can see who you truly are.”

“Congratulations on your written speech,” Nguyen replied.

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