Stalled plans for another Vietnam War monument in the City of Westminster has sent local politics into a tailspin once again — and now a reshuffling of control over it between warring sides on the City Council.
A slim majority of City Council members on Wednesday night voted to take the memorial out of the hands of the private foundation sponsoring it — partly steered by Mayor Tri Ta and Councilman Charlie Nguyen — and put the city at the helm.
Ta and Nguyen had personally overseen the project’s fundraising from its foundation board, the Quang Tri Victory Foundation, which purports to have raised over $237,000 as of July 18, according to its website.
It raised conflict of interest concerns by their critics who questioned why Ta and Nguyen were personally involved in raising money for a project they ultimately approved as council members.
Nguyen at a previous meeting in late June rejected the notion of any conflict of interest, saying he doesn’t have a direct financial interest in the monument’s creation and fundraising for it was “the right thing to do.”
At the same meeting, critics like Councilman Carlos Manzo said it all comes down to public perception “and what the public sees.”
Manzo, along with fellow council members Tai Do and Kimberly Ho, voted Wednesday night to support the city’s takeover of the monument, while Ta and Nguyen abstained after a long verbal battle, which got personal many times with accusations of spreading lies.
It all surrounds the now-stalled plans to construct another Vietnam War memorial at Sid Goldstein Freedom Park, this time commemorating the South Vietnamese victory at the Quang Tri Citadel in 1972, just years before their loss to the north.
As part of that Wednesday vote, at Ho’s request, the city would form a council-appointed, 11-member oversight committee to flesh out the vision and scope of the new Quang Tri memorial, which would not be sponsored by Ta and Nguyen’s foundation.
That upcoming oversight committee will now have to work with another freshly-minted memorial committee, which determines if a monument can be built on city property or not.
The separate committee was voted into existence at an earlier July 14 meeting, where Ho, Manzo and Do put a moratorium on all new monuments on city property.
Through their vote, council members also directed staff not to spend any city money on the installation but to fundraise for it by partnering with some type of nonprofit organization.
The Quang Tri memorial project under the foundation’s plans was criticized as an unnecessary political enrichment tool, while supporters say the privately-funded memorial would commemorate a victory for South Vietnamese immigrants who ultimately lost their country.
The project has been pushed from the dais by Ta and Nguyen, also backed by Little Saigon political figures such as Van Tran and Lan Quoc Nguyen.
The scrutiny over the planned monument turned a majority council member, Ho, against her usual allies in Ta and Nguyen — a voting bloc once so consistent on divisive issues that critics publicly labeled them the “Gang of Three.”
Ho has since joined council members Carlos Manzo and Tai Do in not just questioning, but adamantly opposing the specific project that the foundation put forward.
Van Tran, a former Republican state Assemblyman and political ally to Nguyen and Ta, at a June 25 council meeting called the newfound opposition to the project a “23rd hour attempt” to “politically interfere.”
He said the foundation of which he’s a member “will not sit idly by, and will take any action necessary, legal and political, to protect this project from falling victim to political gamesmanship from anyone.”
Ho, responding to Ta’s objections to the city takeover Wednesday night, said “If you want to take it to court, take it to court.”
City Clerk Christine Cordon told Voice of OC in a Wednesday evening email that “a notice of intent and affidavit” for a recall petition to unseat Ho “were filed in my office today.”
To make an election happen, the recall petition will need at least 2,654 signatures from Ho’s District 3, — 20% of its 13,285 registered voters, according to recall election guidelines from the OC Registrar of Voters
During Wednesday’s public comment, some residents described that night’s meeting as a “circus” and “shit show.”
It was also one filled with charges of betrayal against Ho by some Vietnamese residents and warnings of another recall effort to unseat her.
At times that night, the city’s interpreter Tina Do flat-out refused to translate what she said were offensive personal attacks from some residents who gave their comments in Vietnamese.
Since the year began, some local veterans have criticized the foundation’s project as unnecessary and a dilution of the existing memorial they helped bring about at Sid Goldstein Freedom Park.
Many of those same critics, such as veteran Robert Harrison of the Vietnam Veterans of America group, questioned whether Ta and Nguyen were merely using the memorial for their own political gain.
The Quang Tri Victory Foundation’s idea for the monument included a plaque dedicated to the Mayor and City Council.
Over a series of regular and special council meetings between late June and July, the project was indefinitely paused on June 25 — a pause which was cemented July 14 through an unusual vote by Ho, Manzo and Do to enact a “moratorium” on any new monuments in the city.
The memorial has subsequently taken center stage in a political fight so ferocious, it has dragged recent council meetings into the morning and even prompted project supporters to drive a U-Haul truck around the city criticizing — and featuring the faces of — Ho, Manzo and Do earlier this month.
Last December, the City Council unanimously approved the monument named for South Vietnam’s victory in 1972 against the north in the battle at Quang Tri Citadel.
The battle, which is symbolic for many Vietnamese people, was fought with little help from the U.S. as American involvement in the war was coming to an end.
It’s a battle that Ta, Nguyen and other supporters want to memorialize, decades after South Vietnam’s eventual loss to North Vietnam.
Westminster made history as the first city in the nation to see a Vietnamese American majority elected to its council. Ideas about the war, and the political ideologies driving it, have historically reverberated throughout Westminster’s political scene to dramatic effect.
Meanwhile, Westminster has faced pressing issues without any substantial action by the council over the past few years.
Half of City Hall’s department heads and leaders are temporary, with some unable to determine who exactly is steering the ship amidst a substantial leadership vacuum.
The city faces a potential fiscal calamity in the next few years, amid the expiration of a sales tax that kept the city budget somewhat above water for the past several years and uncertainty as to whether officials will — or should — put another one before voters.
Resident Camilla Overbeek, in public comment Wednesday, said “tonight’s meeting thus far has been an absolute circus.”
“While I’m not surprised, I believe that I along with many others in this community are growing tired,” said Overbeek, pointing out that while the council spent its last “four meetings on a monument that has become quite controversial, other cities like Huntington Beach are working on pilot programs” that rethink local response to issues like homelessness and public safety.
Overbeek said she hasn’t seen “a single item on recent agendas that focus on growing a healthy economy here in this city. Constantly focusing on pet projects is not conducive to the community at all.”
“This is not productive, this is an absolute — excuse my language — shit show,” Overbeek said.
Assistant City Attorney Kathya Firlik butted in to ask Overbeek to refrain from using explicit language.
Overbeek replied: “It’s a S-H-I-T show.”
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.