Westminster voters will have multiple chances this year to shape the face of their City Council with the primary and general elections, plus a separate, special recall election in April that will decide whether three sitting council members should stay in office or be replaced.
Eleven residents are hoping to replace council members Kimberly Ho, Charlie Nguyen and Mayor Tri Ta in a special recall election set for April 7.
But before voters can decide on any candidates listed on the ballot, they’ll first have to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a section of the ballot asking them whether Ho, Nguyen and Ta should be recalled in the first place.
Regardless of which replacement candidates gets the most votes, it won’t mean anything unless a ‘yes’ to recall the sitting council members gets a majority vote, according to City Clerk Christine Cordon.
“They have to be recalled first. If the majority vote on the recall portion of the ballot is a ‘no,’ then the replacement candidates don’t matter,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday.
There will be a period where people can apply to be a write-in candidate, Cordon said, though it’s not clear when that will be.
The recall election is the result of a movement by a political group, Westminster United, which was created with the goal of unseating Ho, Nguyen, and Ta, and gained the financial backing of Vietnamese American billionaire, Kieu Hoang, who hired paid signature-gatherers and hired political consultant Dave Gilliard to assist the group.
The three council members have comprised a majority voting bloc on the council last year on issues like ethics and transparency at City Hall, as well as questions about who should have the power to place key city issues up for public discussion.
Ho, Nguyen and Ta have often clashed with council members Tai Do and Sergio Contreras on those issues, dragging meetings into midnight and drawing crowds of residents and Little Saigon observers to watch the arguing up close at the council chambers.
Here’s a run-down of who’s hoping to take the seats.
The Mayor’s Seat
Three candidates are in the running to replace Ta, whose term ends in 2022.
Among them is current Councilman Tai Do, a Long Beach police officer of 23 years who’s one of Ta’s most vocal critics on the council.
Do ran for his current council seat amid rampant allegations of wrongdoing at City Hall in 2016 on a platform of transparency and ethics reform for city officials. His term so far has been marked by lawsuit threats and relentless arguing with Ho, Nguyen and Ta, who have accused Do of political grandstanding.
Among his priorities, if elected mayor, Do says he’ll restore “integrity at City Hall,” address the “high cost of housing” and other issues like getting homeless people “off the streets” and “keeping taxes down,” according to his candidate statement on the city website.
Another candidate is Christopher Ochoa, who ran for mayor in the November 2018 midterms but lost to Ta by more than 11,000 votes.
Ochoa didn’t file a candidate statement with the city, but in a phone interview he said he’ll take “zero” monetary contributions to his campaign, and that he’s “a reform guy — I believe our whole city government needs to be reformed.”
Among his top issues, he said, is the city’s spending: “We need to allocate money to stop spending on useless stuff and start spending on things that will benefit the community.”
The final mayoral candidate is Phat Vu, a writer who often attends council meetings to advocate for rent control in the city and for residents in the city’s mobile home parks.
Vu also didn’t file any candidate statement with the city, but in a statement to a reporter said issues like rent control, budget imbalances and establishing a cultural center in the city would be among his top priorities as mayor.
The city website also includes a candidate statement from Ta, who writes that “there is no legitimate reason to recall me from the Mayor’s office.”
“Recall organizers have spouted lies, falsehoods, and misleading information about my good name and service record. With the help of money from outside Westminster, a disgruntled few are attempting to turn back the progress of our good city,” he adds.
Kimberly Ho’s Seat
Khai Dao most recently ran unsuccessfully for the city council in 2018, and can often be seen filming council meetings and speaking against Ho, Nguyen and Ta during public comment.
He describes himself in his candidate statement as a “non-profit director/journalist” who blames the majority for the one-cent sales tax increase, which took effect in 2017, and approving “millions of dollars to settle lawsuits” against the city.
Mark Lawrence, another candidate, is a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy who didn’t file any candidate statement with the city, but in a phone interview said he’s “been slugging it out with City Hall for years.”
Lawrence, who’s run for the council numerous times in previous elections, said if residents go back through archived city council meeting videos and “watch city hall, they know what I stand for.”
Some of those things, he said, are figuring out how the city will grapple with its looming leadership vacuum, and financial concerns surrounding lawsuits against the police department and a sunsetting sales tax measure.
Tam Do in his candidate statement describes himself as a teacher running for the council to “help end the turmoil and corruption at City Hall and get our community working together again.”
His top priorities, according to his statement, are “bringing unity and civility back to city hall … supporting businesses and law enforcement and … reducing crime and homelessness in our city.”
Carlos Manzo is a current planning commissioner and frequent at council meetings.
“I want to see our hard-earned tax dollars spent wisely. I want to see proactive code enforcement to get rid of blight. Let’s improve our streets, let’s address homelessness, and let’ s work with our police on community outreach to make our city safer,” his candidate statement reads. “We need strong leadership, accountability, transparency and integrity from our city council. I want to see our city thrive.”
Samantha Bao Anh Nguyen is a current city traffic commissioner who has also run for city council in the last couple of elections. In her candidate statement she promises to donate “100%” of her City Council compensation, which is $850 per month, to charity.
Some of her top priorities, according to her statement, are to “stop wasting your (residents’) tax dollars, support our police department, schools, and libraries” and to “make it easier to do business in the city.”
Frank Tran spends much of his candidate statement criticizing Ho.
“Instead of spending funds to fight homelessness, make housing more affordable or increase public safety, this council member voted to spend over half a million dollars over the span of three years on pay raises for her upper management employees,” his statement reads.
He describes himself as a civil engineer with 15 years of experience in the Newport Beach Public Works Department.
Ho in her statement calls the recall movement “baseless,” adding it will cost the city hundreds of thousands in taxpayer money. She also lists some achievements during her three years on the council.
Without explaining how, she says in her statement that she “stopped most of the lawsuits (against the city) that would have drained our reserve and our general fund.” Four lawsuits against the police department are currently underway.
Charlie Nguyen’s Seat
Jamison Power is a current Westminster School District board member, who claims a record of balancing the budget and raising test scores, among other things, in his candidate statement.
“I am running to restore integrity and sanity at City Hall by implementing real ethics reforms, term limits, campaign contribution limits, and greater disclosure of campaign donors,” his statement adds. “I am running to put the focus back on public safety, support our police, work to find solutions to the homelessness crisis, and restore fiscal responsibility.”
Cu Tran describes himself as a retired electrical specialist in his candidate statement.
A vote for him, it adds, means “a cleaner and transparent city management,” an increase in the city’s police force to “stop gangs and graffiti,” “less nepotism,” and “a better city council.”
“Allegations trumped up for this recall have been rejected, point-by-point, as fact- free and without merit,” Nguyen’s statement reads. “By voting ‘No’ on the recall, we can rebuff this political sham and send a clear message to outsiders that Westminster cannot be bought.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.