Norberto Santana, Jr.
A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.
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When I heard last week that the Westminster City Council was hunting for commies, I got myself a front row seat to what I knew would be a good fight.
Little Saigon always feels like home.
Growing up in Whittier, California as a first-generation Cuban American, next to boxing, judo and baseball, anti-communism was the sport of the house and the broader community of exiles, many proud Bay of Pigs veterans, who were my elders.
Hearing the horrors they endured to reach freedom always stuck with me in a deep way.
One of my first jobs out of graduate school was working as a democracy analyst for several years with the International Republican Institute on National Endowment for Democracy programs across Latin America and the Caribbean.
The in-country work really taught me a lot about what totalitarian governments are capable of as well as what freedom-loving individuals can do to resist and overcome.
So when I heard there were local concerns about the Vietnamese government – much like the Cuban and Russian regimes do in other areas – actively fomenting discord in exile communities like Little Saigon, I felt compelled to pay attention.
Westminster Mayor Tri Ta delivered a whopper of a resolution against the Hanoi regime last Wednesday with the traditional fiery rhetoric of an old-fashioned anti-communist bonfire.
Yet his resolution ultimately fell way short, lumping in just about any activist, dissenting council member or journalist in his community questioning the city or the city council of Westminster with the Vietnamese government, now under official threat from the city of being termed “active aiders and abettors of the Hanoi regime.”
Mayor Ta – who leads a three-member Vietnamese majority on the city council – never mentioned his two rivals on the dais, city councilmen Tai Do, who is also of Vietnamese descent and Sergio Contreras, saying his resolution had more to do with Hanoi’s ominous Executive Order 36 from 2004 – which sought to challenge alternative power bases of Vietnamese exiles abroad, like Little Saigon.
Yet Ta’s resolution very clearly refers to disputes that have played out on the council dais.
“Westminster has, since the 2018 election, witnessed a marked increase in incidents of political disruptions and turmoil in furtherance of EO36, frequently targeted at the City Council who current super-majority is of Vietnamese descent, as perpetrated by individuals, also of Vietnamese background, who often label themselves as “independent journalists” or “concerned community activists,” reads the mayor’s resolution.
Those labels could cover just about every person of Vietnamese descent in Westminster, especially some like Councilman Do, who often dissents from the council majority.
Since coming onto the city council in 2018, Do has raised troubling questions about how city hall business is conducted and proposed ethics reforms and training.
Do has especially drawn official ire from the council majority for publicly questioning the implication of the scathing corruption claims filed against the City of Westminster by former Police Chief Kevin Baker – disclosed only after a long public records lawsuit from Voice of OC.
Note that one community group, Westminster United, is currently gathering signatures in a heated campaign to recall the council majority. A separate effort is also targeting council dissenters, Do and Contreras.
Orange County GOP leaders and elected officials like County Supervisor Andrew Do are standing behind the city council majority, doing and funding robocalls on their behalf.
Mayor Ta purposely avoided naming any names last week from the city council dais for his resolution, which his colleagues Kimberly Ho and Charlie Nguyen supported as written and his dissenting colleagues, Do and Contreras abstained from.
Yet avoiding specifics is a sloppy, divisive and potentially deadly approach when throwing around explosive allegations, like communist aider and abettor.
An especially ominous call-out comes at the tail-end of the council majority resolution approved last week where “The City Council encourages all residents of Westminster to raise their voices against individuals who fit the profile of an ‘aider and abettor’ as referenced in the above characteristics, and to encourage them to return to the just cause of freedom and democracy instead of continuing to cause turmoil and disorder, which only helps sustain the communist government in Vietnam.”
What is most concerning about the Westminster resolution is that it’s just the latest in a dark and disturbing trend recently across many Orange County cities to quash dissent – especially from the city council dais.
Our politicians seem to get more and more sensitive with each election cycle, more focused on shielding themselves from public review, much less criticism.
We are seeing efforts to limit dissenting council members’ ability to put agenda items up for discussion as well as the imposition of time limits on elected officials’ discussion in cities like Anaheim. Members of the public also have seen efforts to limit public comment at the County of Orange.
These kinds of limits on debate and dissent go against the very core of the First Amendment principles that our American nation was founded on.
I would even argue that these kinds of measures are exactly the kinds of misguided efforts that regimes in places like Hanoi and Havana love to point out, to show off just how fickle our democracy really is.
Every single public access law we have is based around the premise that the people run the government, not the other way around.
The introduction to California’s open records law, the 1953 Brown Act, says it all.
“The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”