Westminster city officials are in the midst of reaching out formally to California’s attorney general and Orange County’s district attorney for help in finding out how city officials sold off a slice of Liberty Park to a nearby land owner.
Despite the policy implications of selling parkland, there’s a bigger question hovering over the sale.
Was it illegal?
It’s just the latest hot debate in Orange County around the need for more local parkland, especially in central county’s working class communities where issues like the pandemic and climate change are pushing a real debate over the pressing need for open space.
A 2016 study by Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks found Westminster to have one of the lowest park acreages within its city limits, per 1,000 residents, in the entire county.
The issue has also renewed focus on California’s Surplus Land Act, which was recently tightened up and is aimed at keeping public lands in public hands — especially when it comes to open space and affordable housing.
Anaheim leaders are facing lots of questions whether their recent sale of Angel’s stadium to the team’s owner complied with the Surplus Land Act.
County leaders also got similar questions recently for attempting to slice off a piece of public land in the upper Newport Bay to a wealthy GOP donor.
Over in Garden Grove, city leaders are mulling what to do with the Willowick golf course that is for sale and offers huge opportunities for open space.
In Santa Ana, recent actions to close down handball courts have raised big questions about the role of parks in urban areas.
And even in Irvine, city leaders are still trying to figure out how to make their Great Park project viable after decades of planning.
Ironically, most of the questions in Westminster are being directed at the city attorney, who was the city’s chief legal advisor on the 2016 sale of a slice of Liberty Park, which houses a local skatepark.
“Who’s watching out for our city?” asked Westminster City Councilwoman Kimberly Ho, who earlier this month led a 4-0 city council vote calling for law enforcement investigations into the park sale as well as a city internal investigation. Councilman Chi Charlie Nguyen abstained.
“Everything about this transaction is so shady,” said Ho, who was visibly upset by the city sale of parkland.
“Our city has been robbed,” said Ho responding to City Attorney Christian Bettenhausen, who suggested council members be careful with public statements on the sale and suggested the matter be debated in closed session earlier this month at the city council meeting.
Except, Bettenhausen — and the law firm of Dick Jones, who represents many cities across OC as a city attorney — were themselves involved in advising on the sale.
Yet even he’s not sure what happened.
On top of that, he publicly told council members earlier this month that he himself has lots of questions about the legality of the sale.
“Honestly, the first I’m aware of it,” Bettenhausen told council members during their debate, which was intense, but did ultimately yield a unanimous vote to investigate the matter.
“It is highly irregular and we should look into it,” he said.
“It’s very problematic.”
Under state laws — like the Surplus Land Act — there are lengthy and very specific procedures for selling off land that taxpayers bought.
“We don’t ever sell property on consent (calendar),” Bettenhausen said in public session.
Yet that’s exactly what the city council did in 2016.
“If I would have known it’s a park,” said Bettenhausen, raising questions whether the item was agendized clearly when it was taken up in 2016.
Westminster Mayor Tri Ta — who clashed often with Councilwoman Ho during the park debate — agreed that council members deserve to know why the park sale was improperly agendized for consideration.
“We assumed the item was vetted by the city attorney’s office,” Ta said in public.
“I want to know why it was on consent too.”
During this month’s meeting, Ta demanded to read a letter from legal representatives for the nearby land owner who purchased the slice of public park in an effort to offer background.
The council majority refused to allow Ta to read the letter, which Voice of OC obtained through a California Public Records Act request.
According to correspondence released by the city, it seems a nearby land owner reached out to the city back in 2015, expressing an interest in the 10,200 square foot portion of the park, which they argue had become run down and affected by homeless encampments.
It appears city leaders agreed and fast tracked a sale of the site, which by 2016 was approved on the consent calendar, an approach usually reserved for non-controversial items.
The one thing this park issue may have done is create an issue where a deeply divided city council — except Councilman Nguyen who abstained from the investigation vote — agree on something.
Yet it’s still unclear when Westminster city officials will be sending out formal referrals for an investigation.
It is likely that local taxpayers will get an update at tonights’ city council meeting. Click here to watch tonight’s 7 p.m. council meeting.
“I’m really concerned to sell a piece of city land. It doesn’t seem like it was conducted properly,” said Councilman Tai Do at the last meeting.
“It doesn’t pass the smell test.”
An earlier version of this story indicated that the slice of Liberty Park was sold in 2017. We regret the error.