2019: The Year of Nastiness on the City Council Dais

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Westminster City Council.

A number of Orange County cities this year saw heightened levels of political disarray and verbal nastiness among their city councils, and at times the anger boiled over to the public they’re supposed to represent.

The in-fighting and incivility united north county cities like Anaheim and Westminster this year with central and south county cities like Irvine and Laguna Beach.

Issues of decorum for elected officials, their ability to place key city issues up for public discussion, and the role of the public in having their input heard were all popular points of contention.

In Anaheim, Mayor Harry Sidhu — with the backing of his majority on the Council — introduced policies like rearranging general public comment speaking times for residents during the first few meetings of 2019, shortly after becoming Mayor.

Sidhu also stifled the Anaheim City Council minority’s ability to schedule agenda items by requiring two other council members to support a proposal before it could be put on the agenda. Since January, Councilmembers Denise Barnes and Jose Moreno have had trouble getting some of their policy ideas on the agenda.

After Barnes and Moreno tried to sunshine the Angel Stadium appraisal and institute a public review period for any final stadium proposal in October, Councilman Trevor O’Neil convinced the the Council it doesn’t need to hear similar proposals more than once in a six-month period.

The new agenda-setting requirement bars Councilmembers from trying to agendize for at least six months a discussion if it doesn’t get support from two colleagues. The same six-month restriction also applies to “Council-initiated agenda items that the Council has considered or taken action on at a meeting (Including, but not limited to, by voting on, postponing or tabling) …”

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Denise Barnes during the Anaheim City Council meeting on October 29.

None of the agenda-setting restrictions apply to Sidhu.

The Anaheim mayor’s agenda-setting policy kicked off a trend of similar ones around the county, later adopted by cities like Westminster and Irvine, with proponents for those policies like Irvine Mayor Christina Shea and Westminster Mayor Tri Ta being similarly criticized for attempting to silence critics.

“We have had a long history where the majority has got to control and direct the entirety of the council by not allowing the rest of the council members to have a voice,” said Irvine Councilwoman Melissa Fox of Shea’s move in July. “But never before have they gone this far.”

In all the three cities that adopted the policy this year, the mayor was given a special exception to it, maintaining the ability to unilaterally place items for discussion on the agenda without needing council approval.

Westminster saw raucous discourse at almost every council meeting this year.

The November 2018 election of Long Beach police officer Tai Do to the City Council set the stage for a number of public battles throughout the year over issues like ethics, transparency, corruption and power.

After Do introduced ideas like ethics and conduct policies for city officials when conducting city business, and critiqued the way council members communicated directly with city staff, majority councilmembers Kimberly Ho, Charlie Nguyen and mayor Ta criticized Do for grandstanding.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Westminster City Council members give out a city recognition at the start of their Sept. 11 meeting.

Ho, who had repeatedly argued council members and staff were already abiding by state ethics laws, at one February meeting threatened Do with a defamation lawsuit, while nearly crying.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Westminster Police Chief Mark Lauderback and Assistant City Manager Chet Simmons at the Council’s Sept. 11 meeting.

At an August meeting, a battle for political control over Westminster’s annual Little Saigon Tet Parade resulted in a shouting match between divided City Council members and forced the meeting into a recess.

“Would you shut up?” Councilman Tai Do said to Councilwoman Kimberly Ho at one point in the discussion, after both wouldn’t stop yelling over each other.

Shouting then erupted among people across the council chambers. City staff exchanged looks.

One woman in the audience, shaking her head, stood up and left.

In Laguna Beach, City Councilman Peter Blake faced criticism from residents for his proposals to ease restrictions on downtown development and for lashing out at residents during meetings and online through social media and news story comments sections.

BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

Critics of Laguna Beach Councilman Peter Blake (center) say he’s overly hostile to members of the public. He says he won’t apologize.

Blake was elected at a crucial moment in the city at a time when Laguna Beach could possibly change the zoning and building requirements for its downtown area in a city that has long prided itself on the preservation of the environment and neighborhoods’ character.

The fights started by Do and Blake on their respective councils prompted both Westminster and Laguna Beach to look at ways to institute decorum at future meetings.

§

Read about some of the key local debates on political decorum from this year, below:

Anaheim Mayor Sidhu Unofficially Limits Council Discussion

May 9 Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu has single-handedly restricted Council comments to two five-minute intervals on each agenda item after he removed from the agenda a policy proposal that would’ve cemented it to the city’s meeting procedures. Read the Story »

Experts: Anaheim Mayor Sidhu’s Council Debate Time Limit Sends Wrong Message

July 30 Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu’s time limit on Council debate is problematic and could set a bad precedent for cities around Orange County, experts say. Read the Story »

Anaheim Council Majority Silences Minority 

Nov. 7 Anaheim’s City Council majority members have decided they don’t need to consider policy proposals from the minority more than once in a six-month period. Read the Story »

Anaheim Ramps up Security at Public Meetings Amid Effort to Quash Debate and Push Through Stadium Deal

Nov. 21 People now have to walk through metal detectors and get their bags searched before going to Anaheim City Council meetings, an effort that began just after the City Council began limiting debate and preparing for a fast-track public consideration of the billion dollar Angels stadium deal next month. Read the Story »

Newly Elected Westminster Councilman Clashes With Peers Over Ethics and Transparency

April 4 Westminster has a chance to “make peace with the past,” according to first-time City Councilman Tai Do, who in the first few months of his term has become known for his clashes with fellow council members over ideas about ethics, power, and accountability in a city still reeling from years of corruption allegations leveled by former city employees. Read the Story »

Westminster City Council Approves Thinned-Out Ethics Code

Sept. 12 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. Read the Story »

Allies on Westminster Council Add to Their Power Over the Agenda

June 4 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. Read the Story »

Allegations of Vietnam Interference in Westminster Now Official City Policy

Sept. 12 Westminster Mayor Tri Ta’s allegations that the Vietnamese government is disrupting City Hall are now part of an official city policy, despite critics’ claims it labels his political opponents “communists” in an attempt to turn Little Saigon against them. Read the Story »

Irvine Becomes Latest OC City To Adopt Controversial Agenda-Setting Policy

July 11 The Irvine City Council, joining at least six other Orange County cities, has adopted a controversial temporary policy that potentially shuts some council members out of holding public discussions on issues that others on the dais don’t want. Read the Story »

One City Councilman and His Critics Have Laguna Beach in Uproar

Sept. 25 If people wanted civility in Laguna Beach politics, first time City Councilman Peter Blake says they shouldn’t have voted for him. Read the Story » 

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

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.