It’s an election unlike any other in Westminster. 

Nine candidates are on the ballot hoping to win a total of two City Council seats and the mayor’s – and govern the cultural heart of Orange County’s Little Saigon at a time of financial and political turmoil.

But it’s unclear how much of the city will be left to lead after Nov. 8, say community activists, City Hall staff and government watchdogs. 

The fate of Westminster itself might very well rest on the ballot box, they argue, as voters will decide on a citywide sales tax measure that would ensure funding for even the most basic of services, like entire police divisions, city offices, public parks and stray shopping cart removal. 

But will it pass? It’s an uncertainty that has some on edge. After all, sales tax measures are widely unpopular, with the idea of authority passing the consequence of its management mistakes onto taxpayers. 

And many tuned-in residents can agree that’s the case.

Years of City Hall and police department lawsuit payouts – and a 2010s-era over reliance on state redevelopment money that the city still hasn’t recovered from – have long brewed a crisis for city coffers.

“A lot of people are really concerned, first, that they didn’t even know this was an issue,” said Niki Nguyen, a 23-year-old resident and activist with immigrant advocacy group VietRISE. “I think that speaks to how incredulous the situation is, right? This city should have never been on the brink of bankruptcy to begin with.” 

The measure before voters this November isn’t a tax increase, but an extension of one previously passed in 2016 and designed to expire by the end of this year.  

The city and its residents stared down the same barrel of an operational breakdown then. The tax measure, known as Measure SS, was supposed to get the city ahead in the years since. 

Instead it’s kept Westminster even. 

And the lights on. 

Things got worse with the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit commercial sales and tourism in a town whose Vietnamese business hub on Bolsa Avenue drives much of the local economy. 

With a shortage of manpower and limited resources to fill it, City Hall’s employees are punching in long hours – burning the midnight oil at times to get reports ready for next day meetings – says Westminster’s current City Manager, Christine Cordon.

‘I Should Be Running A City’

She served a much different purpose in her old post – keeping public records and logging votes at council meetings as the City Clerk. 

Due to a longstanding leadership vacuum and city employee turnover issue, Cordon found herself in the city’s top executive role after her interim predecessor’s September 2021 exit. 

But it seems everyone around the office wears multiple hats these days, she said in a Thursday phone interview.

“We’ve got an assistant city manager who still holds the hat of transportation manager because there’s only one other employee in the traffic department,” said Cordon. “I’m a city manager and I’m wearing the hat of communications director. Is it the best use of my time? No. I shouldn’t be running communications.”

“I should be running a city.”

It’s been a hard fought battle to even get this year’s tax question on the ballot. 

For a time, City Council members Tai Do, Chi Charlie Nguyen and Mayor Tri Ta refused to allow voters a choice this year, arguing residents shouldn’t pay for City Hall’s spending mishaps.

But since the turn of the decade – while those same council members were in office – city staff repeatedly asked them for other ideas. 

At numerous public meetings and study sessions, since at least 2019, staff insistently sought direction on finding a way out of their grim bankruptcy forecast, now expected around 2024.

That council direction never came. 

Instead, officials at the dais devoted hours of taxpayer-funded public meetings to scorekeeping on petty topics, like political foes in the Vietnamese media; Vietnam War monuments proposed to bear their own names; or actionless city statement resolutions denouncing one council faction versus another. 

These hours-long debates often stretched past midnight and ended with no real outcomes for city services – or tangible direction to city staff, who had to stay past midnight with them.

Meanwhile, council discussions on the city budget were few and far between.

At times they didn’t go past 30 minutes. 

And as council members got closer to Measure SS’s 2020 expiration date, alternatives were looking less and less likely within a time window narrowing by the day. 

Pretty soon, public meetings on the city’s coming financial calamity were prompting tears and uncomfortable silences between officials on the dais.

City employees pleaded for their jobs during public comments. 

Residents pleaded to save community centers and critical senior services. 

‘A Cornerstone of My Childhood’

Up to this year, the same three council members – Do, Nguyen and Ta – continued to refuse a ballot question of continuing the measure, even at its current rate, despite staff warnings that even that wouldn’t be enough to stave off budget shortfalls.  

The frequent argument was one of conservative no-tax principles. 

Things changed at the middle of this year, where officials were calling 11th-hour special meetings – multiple times in one week – to try to file some type of ballot question with OC elections officials before the deadline for November. 

Nguyen and Ta flipped with reluctance. Do remained unsupportive, casting a non-vote abstention during roll-call.

Staff ideally wanted the sales tax extension to go to voters in 2020. That didn’t happen, and even if it extends with voter approval this year, it won’t take effect until 2023. 

That amounts to a $3 million sales tax revenue gap that would have otherwise flowed in had council members sent it to voters in 2020 – and had voters approved it. 

But its approval this year isn’t guaranteed. 

In fact, City Hall watchdog Terry Rains is campaigning for mayor as a write-in candidate just to bring awareness to it, she said in an Oct. 17 phone interview.

“It’s just not something that should ever happen to any city in Orange County,” Rains said.

In written responses to a Voice of OC candidate survey, Westminster Mayoral candidates Chi Charlie Nguyen, Kimberly Ho, Moses Castillo and Rains all answered that they support the sales tax measure. Click here to see how other candidates responded.

Lisa Nguyen, another young activist at VietRISE, said she always loved going to the Westminster Public Library. 

“It’s a core memory for me,” the 24-year-old said in a Thursday phone interview. “It was a refuge space. It’s been a cornerstone of my childhood.”

Now it’s on the chopping block.

“Stories like this are so important, especially when standing up to our representatives – they live in their own stories,” Nguyen said. “And it’s hard to come into our stories – the nuances and complexities of our residents. To grow up in Westminster, what it means to witness the city go through these different stages – it’s heartbreaking.”

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