A recall team aiming to unseat the Westminster City Council’s three-member majority is claiming success in collecting enough signatures around the city to put the council members’ fates in the hands of a recall election.
The recall team, known officially as Westminster United, reported approximately 11,000 signatures from registered voters in the city for their recall petitions seeking to unseat majority council members Kimberly Ho, Charlie Nguyen and Mayor Tri Ta.
That would be around 5-6% above the minimum required number of signatures from a city’s registered voter population to spur a recall election under state law. Westminster United was required to gather at least 8,736 signatures — 20% of the city’s registered voters.
Now it’s up to the City Clerk’s office to verify that the signature count of the petitions meet or exceed that minimum. From there, the petitions get sent to the Orange County Registrar of Voters to verify that the signatures are from people who are registered to vote in the city. If the petitions pass both steps, the City Council would have to call for a recall election.
City Clerk Christine Cordon said in an email her office completed the signature count for the petition to recall Ta and delivered the petition to the Registrar of Voters on Tuesday, but couldn’t say as of Tuesday night exactly how many signatures were on Ta’s recall petition.
Her email said a count of the signatures on Ho and Nguyen’s petitions should be done tomorrow.
One of Westminster United’s head organizers, city commissioner David Johnson, said at a Tuesday night news conference he was confident the petitions would hold up, adding that the recall team took a precautionary step of checking all of the signatures themselves — using county registered voter data to see if they were valid — prior to submitting them.
But nothing is official yet. Still, recall supporters were in high spirits Tuesday.
“It’s a big success for us. Many of us are very emotional about this,” Johnson said.
Westminster United bases their recall efforts off claims that Ho, Nguyen and Ta have committed a number of ethical violations during their time as elected officials.
Ho, Nguyen and Ta this year have come under fire for using their majority to pass policies limiting debate and participation — like a three-member majority approval requirement to put an item on the agenda for public discussion — and blocking policies they oppose, like versions of a code of ethics and conduct pushed by the Council minority faction.
On an information packet handed to reporters at a Tuesday night news conference, Westminster United elaborated on their claims with over 20 bullet points.
But at that same meeting, an unidentified person handed out another information packet out to reporters — one rejecting Westminster United’s claims and movement, authored by one of the majority faction’s legal advisors, Lan Quoc Nguyen.
The majority faction’s other legal advisor, former Republican State Assemblyman Van Tran, verified the authenticity of the letter in a text message.
“Instead of building for a truly united Westminster, recall proponents have caused deep political division and disharmony in the city, forcing the potential expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money to deal with this recall, funds that could be used for senior’s social programs or youth activities,” Nguyen’s letter reads.
Over the course of this year, the majority faction and minority faction council members Sergio Contreras and Tai Do have engaged in a number of public battles over accountability, power and ethics issues at City Hall.
Recall paperwork was also filed over the Summer against Contreras and Do, though those efforts haven’t reached the signature gathering stage and Cordon said there haven’t been any updates with those recall efforts.
The majority faction and their supporters allege Westminster United has engaged in bait-and-switch misrepresentation tactics while soliciting residents’ signatures for the recall petitions.
Ta, Nguyen and Tran at their own news conference earlier this year showed reporters what they said was evidence of signature collectors tricking residents into signing the recall petitions by showing them petitions for different political initiatives.
Johnson has denied those charges in the past and continued to deny them on Tuesday.
Amid the recall efforts, Ta came under scrutiny in September for a city resolution he wrote, which critics decried as tying proponents for his recall to the Vietnamese government in an attempt to turn Little Saigon against his political opponents.
Meanwhile, critics of Westminster United say their targeting of the majority faction — who are all Vietnamese Americans — is a racist movement backed by the city’s white residents.
Johnson rejected that notion, arguing that Westminster United is a “diverse” movement that includes Vietnamese Americans as well as Latinos and white people.
When asked if Westminster United would commit to supporting the replacement of the majority faction with more Vietnamese Americans to sustain the city’s status as one of the few in the state to have a Vietnamese American majority, Johnson said that’s a discussion he hasn’t had yet with fellow Westminster United leaders.
“I don’t like when people play the race card,” he said. “On the other end, I do understand the pride of having a Vietnamese majority. That’s important to many people. I understand the pride in that.”
He continued: “If 100% of the replacement candidates were Vietnamese Americans, I’m cool with that. It’s about critical thinkers representing everybody.”
He repeated throughout the night that Westminster United will not support or endorse any replacement candidate.
While many recall efforts in California fail for a lack of signatures on petitions, some of the most recent recalls in Orange County were in 2018 for California Sen. Josh Newman over his support for a statewide gas tax increase bill, and in 2012 when three Fullerton City Council members were unseated following the police beating death of a homeless man named Kelly Thomas.
The recall efforts in Westminster have garnered interest across Orange County, spurring robocalls from State Assembly groups and 1st District Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do in support of the majority faction.
Westminster United’s movement most notably gained the backing of Vietnamese American billionaire Kieu Hoang, who hired paid signature collectors and political consultant Dave Gilliard to assist the recall team.
Cordon’s office will resume the signature counting on Wednesday at City Hall from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and again from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Members of the public are permitted to observe the count.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.