When Westminster city officials quietly sold public park land to a nearby property owner in 2016, the city agreed to maintain it regularly for the private buyer with taxpayer money.
Now some current City Council members are trying to claw that money back, amid newfound scrutiny over that year’s sale of a 10,000 square-foot piece of Liberty Park on Monroe St.
Namely, they want the property owner to repay them for the past five years the city spent on upkeep, as questions continue to swirl about why park land was sold in a city which, that same year, was named one of Orange County’s most park-poor.
The city has spent $3,562 on maintenance since the land sale, according to a staff report attached to Wednesday evening’s upcoming City Council meeting, where officials are set to discuss the request. Click here for instructions on how to access the meeting remotely.
The original buyer of the property — Chris Tong who made the buy through STT Westminster Property — has since sold the property to another private entity, according to an October letter from Tong’s attorney, Kevin McCann, pushing back this year on Ho’s calls for an investigation into the sale.
Beginning last month, Councilwoman Kimberly Ho has spearheaded council scrutiny over the sale, following a newer but ongoing chasm among members of the long-divided Westminster council dais.
Over the last month, Ho’s gone as far as saying the city was “robbed” by that 2016 deal.
The controversy has since put the microscope on one current member of the dais — and a former political ally to Ho — who was present for the 2016 council’s vote: Mayor Tri Ta.
It has also put scrutiny on Assistant City Attorney Christian Bettenhausen and former city attorney Dick Jones, who were involved in advising on the sale.
“Who’s watching out for our city?” Ho asked at an earlier meeting in October. “Everything about this transaction is so shady.”
The council voted unanimously, with Councilmember Charlie Nguyen abstaining, on Oct. 13 to call for formal probes into the sale by the OC District Attorney and state Attorney General.
Voice of OC has requested city records of the council’s formal request, apparently sent to the DA’s office in the form of a letter, but has yet to receive it from City Hall.
Acting City Manager Christine Cordon did not respond to questions Tuesday asking which property owner — the original or current one — the city would demand repayment from, if council members move forward on the proposal for Wednesday night put forth by Ho.
McCann, reached by phone Tuesday, declined to talk about the upcoming issue beyond saying it was the first time he heard about it.
Tong reached out to the city back in 2015 expressing interest in the 10,200 square foot portion of the park, which he argued at the time to be poorly maintained. It sat next to a bank building at 8251 Westminster Blvd, which Tong purchased that same year.
In 2016, city leaders quietly agreed to sell the site, approving it on the consent calendar — a section of public meetings that don’t get much public discussion and are usually reserved for more procedural, non-controversial items.
“Since that time the Remnant Parcel has become an attractive, treed area, free from brush, trash and undesirable occupants,” McCann, Tong’s lawyer, wrote to Ho in October, taking issue with her public campaign to reexamine the sale.
“My clients sold that Bank Property many months ago, and have no further interest in it, including the Remnant Parcel,” McCann wrote.
Meanwhile, it appears the sale continued to irk some public employees at City Hall well after it happened, according to emails which Ho shared with Voice of OC on Nov. 4.
“I was very uncomfortable with how the sale of this property was handled,” wrote Diana Dobbert, former community services and recreation director, in an April 2020 email to Sherry Johnson, a former finance director who had been moved to Acting City Manager at the time.
Dobbert wrote “no research or follow up” was done on the sale.
The need for parks and open space, Dobbert wrote in her email that year, “is projected to be 355 acres, yet we currently have only 97.8 acres of park, or a total of 121 acres when counting open space, trails and private recreation areas.”
“Westminster is already at a deficit for park to population ratio, and the probability of ever having the resources to increase land acquisition or exactions from new developments is very low,” she continued in her email.
In that 2020 email, Dobbert said the existing skatepark at Liberty Park provided a much-needed recreational outlet for young people.
She added: “There aren’t many amenities that attract this age group. What we can’t measure, are what kinds of other (inappropriate) activities these boys would be doing if the skate park wasn’t there.”
Dobbert left the city this year, along with a few other high-ranking employees.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that costs to maintain the sold Liberty Park parcel were $3.5 million. The actual amount was around $3,500. Voice of OC regrets the error.
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