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Westminster voters on April 7 will decide whether the three-member City Council majority should stay in office or be replaced.

It’s the earliest possible election date proposed by city staff following the certification of the recall efforts by county elections officials, and gives prospective candidates hoping to replace the majority faction council members – Kimberly Ho, Charlie Nguyen and Mayor Tri Ta – 14 days to pull nomination papers and gather between 20-30 signatures from registered voters to qualify as a candidate.

The special election will come after a year of fighting on the Council between the majority and minority factions over ideas about ethics and transparency at City Hall, and after a months-long recall campaign that Nguyen at one point publicly dismissed last year as having “no chance of success.”

From left: Westminster Mayor Tri Ta, Councilwoman Kimberly Ho and Councilman Charlie Nguyen at a March 2019 City Council meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Starting Thursday, anyone thinking about running to replace a majority council member in the special election can pull nomination papers at the City Clerk’s office.

Setting an early election date was the majority faction’s idea, despite a push for a later date by minority faction council members Tai Do and Sergio Contreras to give replacement candidates more time to campaign and allow what they argued would be more time for Ho, Nguyen and Ta to prepare to defend their seats over the next month.

The estimated cost of a special election stands somewhere between $289,000 and $318,000, according to staff. That’s not including around $119,000 the city will have to pay county election officials for verifying the validity of all the signatures on the recall petitions.

If all three council members were to be voted out in the election, it would be one of the largest successful recalls in the county since the recall of three Fullerton City Council members in 2012 following the police beating death of a homeless man named Kelly Thomas, and the 2018 recall of former state senator Josh Newman (D-Fullerton).

In the event any of the three lose their seats, the replacement candidate for Ho would finish out her term to November this year, while the replacement candidates for Ta and Nguyen would finish out their terms to November 2022.

“My feeling is, you have an opportunity to redeem yourself – there’s a great chance that the people may not check the ‘yes’ box (on the recall ballot) if you change your behavior and cooperate with everybody in this community,” Do said to the majority before the vote, echoing members of the audience who also called on the council to set a later date.

Contreras voiced concern over what he said would be a “shotgun election” that will put more pressure on city staff to process all the election paperwork under a “very short window.”

“I don’t know if we have the capacity to railroad an election (after) 14 days,” Contreras said before the Council.

After the election date was set, Councilwoman Kimberly Ho criticized the recall as coming from “outside influences” spending large amounts of money “to try to reshape our city council to suit their agenda.”

Ho was referring to the political activist group Westminster United that’s behind the recall. The group consists of majority faction critics and was created for the very purpose of unseating the majority.

Westminster United gained the financial backing of a wealthy Vietnamese American entrepreneur, Kieu Hoang, who hired paid signature gatherers and enlisted political consultant Dave Gilliard – a prominent strategist for conservative politicians who worked on the successful recall of California Governor Gray Davis in 2003.

Those critics say Ho, Nguyen and Ta have consolidated too much power over city politics, while supporters say Do – a vocal critic of the majority council members who gets into arguments with them at almost every public meeting – is stirring up chaos at City Hall and among the Vietnamese American community in Little Saigon.

Westminster City Council members give out a city recognition at the start of their Sept. 11 meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“Those outside influences know that they don’t have to prove their baseless accusations – all they have to do is cry corruption, create confusion among 20 percent of the voters and they get their wish, which is to steal elections they did not win,” said Ho.

She went on to list off some of her self-proclaimed accomplishments since being elected in 2016, prompting critics in the audience to stand up and accuse her of campaigning from the dais.

The uproar continued to the meeting’s final minutes, as Do and Ta raised their voices over each other fighting to have the last word of the night.

With an abrupt bang of the gavel, Ta adjourned it.

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

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