Westminster officials have put a hold on filling their vacant City Manager position after revealing an incomplete background check was done on their top choice for the job, Chu Thai, a former finance and administrative official trading abuse of public resources allegations with a city he used to work for.
At the beginning of the City Council’s Wednesday night teleconference meeting, Westminster City Attorney Dick Jones announced staff would be pulling Thai’s city manager contract off the meeting’s agenda.
“We have determined that the background check for the city manager position has not been completed,” said Jones, adding the city doesn’t offer a contract for an employee until such a check has been done.
He added: “In light of some of the controversy that’s arisen, it’s important that we complete that background check.”
“Once it is completed, we will share that report with the City Council, and at such a time in the future that it’s done, we will bring this matter back to the City Council,” Jones said.
Council members had no objection to taking Thai’s contract off the agenda.
In a phone interview after city staff’s move, Thai praised the council but expressed frustration about the current legal battle he’s in with his former employer, the City of Monterey Park, that prompted the last-minute pause.
“I am very frustrated about the wrongdoings of Monterey Park, and I wish it would be over already,” adding that he had “no idea” whether or not the council was changing its mind on his hiring.
Monterey Park fired Thai in 2017 over allegations he abused public resources during his time there as Management Services Director.
Among the claims are that he misused a city credit card and had a dubious relationship with a company vying for a city contract during his time at Monterey Park, according to court filings in the case.
Thai has since launched a retaliation lawsuit against the city claiming the allegations were false and aimed at him only because he came forward with concerns about real abuses of public resources by the city.
His lawsuit claims the city made inappropriate charges to the city’s trash customers, and put him on administrative leave and eventually terminated him when he reported the charges.
City Council members like Tai Do have voiced concern over Thai’s ongoing controversy.
In a previous interview, Do told Voice of OC he was “shocked” to find out from members of the public about Thai’s litigation with his former employer, saying it hadn’t been disclosed to him during any discussions around the city manager appointment.
The city in its search for a city manager enlisted the services of recruiting firm Bob Hall and Associates, which began the search in April following the abrupt retirement of former city manager Eddie Manfro, who was followed out the door by his former assistant Chet Simmons.
Reached for comment, Hall in a written statement wouldn’t address whether his firm was aware of Thai’s pending litigation and the accusations against him.
Despite Thai’s hiring being put on hold, members of the public still weighed in on his potential appointment to the job.
Speaking directly to Thai while phoning in for public comment, resident Dvorah Mariscal said “our city is at a crossroads.”
“We’re not that stable financially at the moment, and we need somebody who has proven experience so you can get us through the tough times ahead,” Mariscal said. “If you’re applying for the assistant city manager position, I would be fully supportive of that, but as a city manager, without that actual experience, I think that would be really tough for you.”
Others like Thomas Lam — speaking through a letter to the council — were more supportive of Thai becoming the city’s first Vietnamese American city manager.
“The Vietnamese community would be proud to see a city manager of Vietnamese descent running Westminster, also known as the Vietnamese capital outside of Vietnam,” Lam said, calling Thai’s potential hire “history in the making.”
He discouraged the council majority — council members Kimberly Ho, Charlie Nguyen and Mayor Tri Ta — from being “noncommittal or scared of your opposition who will never support you … it’s all politics and nothing else.”
Terry Rains, who is a vocal critic of the council majority, brought Thai’s controversy to light for many of the city’s residents.
“The most important decision a City Council can make is who to hire as City Manager. Hiring the right person for this position is critical. Hiring the wrong person can be devastating to a city,” wrote Rains in a letter to the council ahead of Wednesday’s meeting. “Quite frankly, I am shocked this person ever made it past the initial screening process.”
If hired, Thai would make $213,000 annually, plus a $250 monthly car allowance and monthly $60 cell phone allowance.
As Monterey Park’s Director of Management Services as of 2016, Thai made nearly $189,000 in annual salary and benefits, according to Transparent California.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.