A central issue in Laguna Niguel revolves around outgoing Mayor Elaine Gennawey and her son, Raymond Gennawey, who’s running for office in the same city.
It caught steam at a Nov. 6 meeting last year, when Councilmember Rischi Paul Sharma raised the subject of nepotism for future discussion at the City Council’s following meeting – suggesting that, with an upcoming election, the ethics issue may soon stir up problems for City Hall.
Though Sharma didn’t give specifics that day, Raymond Gennawey had recently announced plans to seek his mother’s seat on the council when she terms out of office later this year – nabbing endorsements from a variety of south county city and state officials, as well as one from his mother.
The issue started a tense, two–hour debate at the following Nov. 16 meeting, one which surfaced public questioning as to why council members in town seemed to come from the same families.
In Orange County, the question of family ties in government business isn’t exclusive to the City of Laguna Niguel.
Up in central county, it’s also something of a recurring theme for the City of Westminster.
Mindy Romero, founder and director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California, said nepotism is one of the most easy-to-understand forms of impropriety in government — something which people know clearly runs counter to the public’s interest.
For that reason, Romero said in a Thursday phone interview, charges of nepotism can often be incendiary, chipping away at the delicate fabric of public trust in local government at a time where trust in national government is at a major low.
It’s also why charges of nepotism are frequently hurled around for political gain, Romero said, adding that when it comes to public trust, “perception is sometimes everything.”
“One of the sometimes devastating impacts from nepotism is just what it does to public trust,” Romero said. “In and of itself, it’s kind of an easy charge that can be really salient or incendiary.”
The subject brought the Westminster City Council down a similarly incendiary debate last month, during a Dec. 8 meeting, when Councilman Chi Charlie Nguyen proposed the removal of a political rival’s son from a set of city commissions.
Nguyen at the time offered a simple explanation: The council majority, with which he frequently clashes, approved new regulations the previous month restricting nepotism at City Hall.
He said his motion to remove Weston Seid, the son of City Councilmember Kimberly Ho, from the city Planning Commission and Measure SS Oversight Committee, merely sought to abide by the spirit of the new policy.
But there was more to Nguyen’s intentions, said other council members that night.
It was Nguyen who appointed Weston Seid, the son of Councilmember Kimberly Ho, to the city Planning Commission back in 2019.
Likewise, Ho appointed Nguyen’s daughter that same year to the Community Services and Recreation Commission, which she’s no longer on.
During the Dec. 8 discussion, three years later, Ho accused Nguyen of targeting her son “for public embarrassment, and doing it maliciously.”
“It doesn’t take me long to figure out why,” said Ho, who was once a reliable voting ally to Nguyen and Mayor Tri Ta – but in recent months has become one of their most consistent political foes on the dais.
It prompted Seid to speak out in written comments submitted to the meeting that day and read aloud by City Manager Christine Cordon: “I don’t understand why I’m being singled out, not only in previous meetings, but explicitly in this meeting, for (agenda) item 7.1.”
“My name is literally on the agenda.”
Ho at the meeting then repeated a claim about Nguyen which she had been making for months, by then – that Nguyen, during his time on the council, was “bringing his developer friends and donors to meet with (city) staff, putting pressure and directing staff to bend over backwards for them.”
“I know all the developers and donors you helped, Chi Charlie, have to eventually go through the Planning Commission to get their projects approved, and Weston Seid is now in your way,” Ho added.
Nguyen denied Ho’s claims, demanding she present evidence. He repeated his earlier point, that he was simply bringing the issue forth for council review in light of their recently-approved policy on the matter, and that the majority could vote it down if they wished.
“I have not done anything with the planning commission for years. Prove it to me. Don’t just say it. What a lie. You can’t lie to the people like that,” Nguyen said. “You tell me I’m singling him out – no, he is the only one right now in all the committees (who) is the son of a council member.”
Nepotism is one recurring theme in the hyper-political disarray that’s afflicted Westminster’s halls of city government over the past three years.
Councilmember Carlos Manzo, at that Dec. 8 meeting, recalled that another council member, Tai Do, proposed anti-nepotism rules as far back as 2019, but there was no political support for it at the time. Ho, that year, was aligned politically with Ta and Nguyen.
Do disputed the notion that Nguyen’s proposal had no political motives – “please,” he remarked as the council prepared to vote – but ended up voicing support for Nguyen’s idea to remove Seid, on the basis of setting proper precedent.
“I know that my son would never sell out our city,” Ho said before the vote.
The council voted 3-2 to remove Seid from the Planning Commission, with council members Kimberly Ho and Carlos Manzo in favor of keeping him on.
In Laguna Niguel, the topic of nepotism turned out dozens of public commenters, at the council’s Nov. 16 meeting, who were eager to address what they saw as a pressing issue.
Public commenters fell on both sides of the spectrum in the debate during the Nov. 16 discussion, with some questioning why so many of their council members came from the same families as others accused Sharm, the other council member, of trying to spin Raymond’s candidacy as a political tactic.
“Currently I can’t have my child come with me to my job, nor can I have him fill in for me if I’m unavailable,” one commenter at the meeting said. “Why would the city not be held to the same standards?”
Elaine Gennawey criticized the council majority for bringing the discussion forward, saying the $10,000 price tag associated with the report was a waste of taxpayer money and that voters had the final say in who gets elected anyway.
“Why on Earth would I support an attempt to waste taxpayer dollars, and that’s exactly what was done,” Gennawey said at the Nov. 16 meeting. “To imply that voters cannot evaluate the experience and credentials of candidates is an insult to our voters.”
The Gennaweys aren’t the first to come under such scrutiny in Laguna Niguel.
Councilwoman Kelly Jennings took over her husband John Mark Jennings’ seat in the 2020 election, stepping in just as he stepped off the dais.
In Laguna Niguel, Elaine Gennawey’s son, Raymond, also applied to be a member of a city commission – namely, Parks and Recreation – in January 2021 before he announced his run for city council. The appointment required council approval.
He did not receive the two-year appointment to the commission.
“When it comes to any form of nepotism there is first often the perception versus the reality,” Romero said, adding that nepotism in government can have real impacts to the management of the public’s resources.
“Then there is the kind of larger damage, harder to quantify, but I think can be more significant, which is what it does to public trust when in these times we don’t need anything more to put barriers between the public and those supposed to serve them.”
The ethics issue, she said, “can make people feel like our civic fabric isn’t as strong.”
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