The Westminster City Council’s three-member majority will likely stay in office, withstanding more than a year-long effort by residents seeking to unseat them, according early results for their special recall election Tuesday night.
Of the city’s 45,218 registered voters, at least 15,995 of them have casted ballots — deciding whether council members Kimberly Ho, Charlie Nguyen, and Mayor Tri Ta should stay in office or be replaced, and if so, who should replace them.
The recall election took place entirely through mail-in ballots, after in-person voting was cancelled due to the ongoing coronavirus public health crisis.
Asked whether Ta should be recalled, 9,507 voters (59%) said “No” while 6,427 (40%) said “Yes.”
For Ho’s recall, 9,161 voters (57%) said “No” while 6,718 (42%) said “Yes.”
For Nguyen, 9,207 voters (58%) said “No” while 6,666 (42%) said “Yes.”
Regardless of which replacement candidates get the most votes, it won’t mean anything unless a ‘Yes’ to recall the sitting council members gets a majority vote.
Of the ballots that were on hand Tuesday night, 766 ballots remained to be counted, according to the Orange County Registrar of Voters, Neal Kelley. That number could increase after election day. The results are scheduled to update Wednesday at 5 p.m.
Kelley said voter turnout for the recall election, at 34.5%, is above average for standalone special elections, adding “many special elections average 25-28% turnout.”
If current election trends hold, the three council members would remain in the face of political turmoil at City Hall, looking at a political divide on the council and a leadership vacuum at the City Manager’s office, currently steered by Finance Director Sherry Johnson until a permanent city manager is found — not to mention four ongoing retaliation and wrongdoing lawsuits against the city’s police department.
The council members would also face the prospect of either bringing the city’s one-cent sales tax increase back to voters for a renewal before it phases out in 2022, or accepting $13 million in lost tax revenue that officials have warned can only be absorbed by making cuts to city services.
On top of all that, the city – along with the rest of the county, state, and country – is still weathering the coronavirus public health crisis, and expects its local economy of businesses in Little Saigon and throughout the city to take a hit as health guidelines remain in place for residents to limit public interactions and nonessential trips out in public.
“The residents of Westminster have spoken very clearly and in an emphatic voice — not once but three times: they want to keep the council majority,” said Van Tran, a former Republican state assemblyman who’s served as a legal advisor to Ho, Nguyen and Ta throughout the recall process.
“The voters like these people and where the city is going, despite the fact that we were attacked on several fronts,” he added.
Jamison Power, a Westminster Elementary School District Board Trustee and candidate to replace Nguyen in the recall, said votes “remain to be counted” but “to be candid, it doesn’t look good.”
“I’m not so much sad for me as I am for the city,” Power said, pointing to issues around the city’s finances and a need to address the homelessness situation. “The city is really crying out for real smart leadership, which it does not have right now.”
“There were a lot of tactics used in this election,” he added, specifically criticizing the majority faction campaign’s use of political mailers. “I think it’s really unfortunate.”
The recall movement was initiated early last year by political group Westminster United, which asserted Ho, Nguyen and Ta were guilty of numerous ethical violations like nepotism and power consolidation at City Hall. Those are charges the council members have repeatedly denied, arguing instead that Westminster United is comprised of disgruntled political opponents who want to take control of city affairs.
The recall campaign was marked by political robocalls, claims by the mayor that foreign agents for the Vietnamese government were fomenting disorder in Little Saigon, accusations of bait-and-switch misrepresentation tactics by recall petition signature gatherers, and incidents of burned down campaign signs.
The majority faction has frequently clashed with council members Do and Contreras, who comprised the council minority last year on a saga of issues like ethics and transparency at City Hall, during meetings that saw overflow crowds and often times pushed discussions toward midnight with all the arguing and shouting matches.
Do was among the eleven candidates who threw their hats into the ring to replace the council members in the recall election, and early results showed that he was in the lead to replace Mayor Ta if a majority of voters had opted “Yes” to recall Ta.
“The people have spoken,” Do said, reacting to the results over the phone. “We all know the elected officials are the representatives of the people. These are the politicians that the voters approve of. I have to respect that.”
Resident and majority faction critic Carlos Manzo was leading by around 11 percentage points over resident Mark Lawrence to replace Ho. Power was leading by around 71 percentage points over resident Cu Tran to replace Nguyen.
A special election was called after Westminster United successfully canvassed for signatures on their recall petitions from 20 percent of the city’s registered voter population.
Opponents to the recall tie signature-gatherers’ success to a key backer of Westminster United’s movement: billionaire Kieu Hoang, who hired signature gatherers during the movement’s canvassing stage and enlisted the services of political consultant Dave Gilliard.
Hoang put more than $1 million into Westminster United’s efforts, his attorney Robert Blackmon said back in February.
The council in-fighting was frequently blamed for more than a year of political divide at City Hall and in Little Saigon’s Vietnamese American community. But Hoang’s involvement exposed that fracture, specifically between those in Little Saigon who supported his involvement in financially backing attempts to oust the majority — and those who saw Hoang as an outsider using money to influence local politics.
“It’s been a long, protracted campaign. It took a toll on everybody, but it was politically therapeutic,” Tran said. “I’ve spoken with the Mayor, as well as with the two council members, that, at the end of the day, you have a sacred duty now that you’ve won: it’s time to unite the community, unite the city – especially at a time like this where we’re dealing with the coronavirus.”
Despite Do’s acceptance that the majority he frequently disagrees with will stay on the council, “this recall effort that was put together by the residents brought to light a lot of issues we have in City Hall.”
“People have voiced their concerns … I hope that’s going to change the attitudes of the majority,” Do added. “It’s going to be a game-changer for both sides.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.