Developer Accused of Bullying As His Plans to Reimagine Westminster’s Civic Center Drag On

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC

Westminster City Hall.

It’s been three years since Westminster officials moved forward with developer Steve Sheldon to reimagine the heart of the city and its old government offices into a community destination and housing hub.

But that effort — to redevelop one of Westminster’s last large pieces of publicly-owned property, the Civic Center — hasn’t yet gotten off the ground. 

Instead, an internal memo labelling Sheldon’s behavior as “hostile” and “aggressive” toward those tasked with holding him to his project commitments is causing distress among the public over what kind of deal, exactly, the city has gotten itself into.

And the memo comes as some in the community, including elected leaders, are questioning whether Sheldon’s plans even have widespread support. 

Signs of inner turmoil over the project appeared when a private consulting firm, hired by the city to oversee Sheldon’s progress, resigned in a Nov. 23 letter to officials, obtained by a city watchdog and later by Voice of OC.

“(Sheldon’s) repeated requests for incomplete studies and processes, which appear to benefit him while detrimentally impacting the city’s future use of the Civic Center property, is not something we will participate in,” wrote the project’s consulting firm, Kelly Associates Management Group.

Read the memo from Kelly Associates here.

Sheldon didn’t respond to phone messages seeking comment Wednesday. 

His company, Sheldon Development, is an Orange County home builder specializing in luxury apartments, town homes, and single family homes. 

Sheldon also sits on the elected Orange County Water District Board, representing parts of Newport Beach and Irvine. He serves on that board alongside Westminster Mayor Tri Ta.

The memo’s co-author, firm executive Bill Kelly, describes Sheldon as someone who “seems to move his targets based on who is requiring information, studies or actions relating to this project.”

“From Day 1 of our involvement on this project, Mr. Sheldon has been aggressive and often hostile, whether in person, on the phone, or on Zoom calls, often towards me,” he wrote. 

Kelly pointed to one instance in which Sheldon had allegedly pressed City Hall on accusations that Kelly and his business partner were intentionally doing “things to delay the project” and draw out their consulting fees. The city ultimately sided with Kelly.

“Mr. Sheldon does not accept professional opinions from us and his continual negative statements about us to the City Council results in us to be repeatedly requested to restate our qualifications and previous project actions,” Kelly wrote.

One of the first items of discussion for newly-elected Westminster City Council members at their Wednesday meeting was a closed-door discussion on the Civic Center project. 

Newly-elected Councilman Carlos Manzo, a few hours before the meeting, questioned whether Sheldon’s project at this point even satisfied the needs of the community, for what he called a “destination location for our residents.”

So far, “what’s been presented to the city doesn’t seem to accomplish that.”

Two iterations of Sheldon’s plan for the civic center generally include demolishing City Hall and the council chambers, building new ones, modifying the area’s open green space, removing parking on site, and building 103 housing units, among other things. 

At the meeting later in the day, the memo was read aloud during public comments by City Hall watchdog Terry Rains, who first obtained the document.

Jodi Boyd, another City Hall observer reacting to the memo in public comments, said Sheldon has “continued to bully and lie, and he’s not acting in our best interest. Let’s get rid of him now and cut ties while we still can.”

Resident Roger Mindrum, who frequently speaks at meetings, voiced hope that somehow the city could persuade Kelly Associates out of exiting, “because we as residents really need an advocate to keep things on the level.”

In the time since winning his exclusive deal with the city, Sheldon has requested and won multiple extensions on deadlines to conduct various studies on the project’s financials and feasibility. 

Sheldon got his most recent extension at the City Council’s Nov. 11 meeting, with Councilman Tai Do abstaining and former Councilman Sergio Contreras opposed.

Contreras, whose term ended Wednesday, at that meeting voiced a need for the city to gauge public opinion.

“We want to know what the public wants — what we want — versus being told what we should have,” Contreras said then, later adding “I just can’t understand what the public benefit is to rush this.”

Councilman Charlie Nguyen, who supported granting Sheldon another extension at that November meeting, said “I don’t think ‘rush’ is the right word.”

In fact, he voiced a need to speed up the process, questioning Bill Kelly — who was at the meeting to answer questions about the project’s progress — and wondering aloud whether “we need the whole time for your service to the city.”

“I’m trying to see if there is any step we can do so we can shorten the time frame,” Nguyen said.

But Nguyen’s vote, with the council majority, meant Sheldon was granted one more year to get those studies and financials together.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.