Authoritarian leadership concentrates power, enforces control, and limits dissent. It disregards consultation, imposes strict rules, and suppresses individual freedoms. The most recent city council meeting underlies a growing concern that the city council is morphing into an authoritarian governing body.
On July 12th, in an overflowing city council chamber, dozens of Westminster residents, city employees, and community organizations spoke with fury on the podium to denounce the proposed dismissal of the City Manager, Christine Cordon. Residents among the crowd held up posters of various sizes criticizing the city council’s planned action. They were promptly chastised by Mayor Charlie Nguyen. Vice Mayor NamQuan Nguyen reminded the Mayor that residents are not permitted to display posters larger than 8×11 and are restricted to the back row of the city council chambers. This unpopular decision was approved just two meetings prior, on June 14th, to limit dissent under the guise of “bringing order and respect back to city hall” (Agenda Item 6.1). In the midst of the anger and the chaos, on the corner of the dais, Councilmember Amy Phan West kept her gaze down at her phone, distracted and bored.
The decisions made by the city council majority appear to promote their own self-interested political goals instead of improving the lives of the city’s residents. Rather than welcoming discussion and debate, the council has taken steps to stifle dissent and limit the opportunity for the public to voice their concerns and opposition. And as the most recent city council meeting shows, the city council is willing to terminate any city staff member that impedes or restricts their agenda.
In 2023, Westminster City Council welcomed its two newest members, Vice Mayor NamQuan Nguyen, and Councilmember Amy Phan West, who joined Mayor Charlie Nguyen to form what Westminster dissenters have labeled as the new “gang of three.” After narrowly averting impending bankruptcy, in 2022, when Westminster voters overwhelmingly voted to approve Measure Y to extend the city’s sales tax, the new council has chosen to deprioritize steering the city towards economic recovery and growth and instead, as the Editorial Board of the OC Register cautioned, has reverted “back to the dysfunctional business-as-usual approach that led to the recent mess.” In the course of 7 months, the new “gang of three” has created a culture of intimidation and fear in the city council chamber for both the public and city staff.
Over the past several months, the public has observed numerous instances of Vice Mayor NamQuan Nguyen using his cell phone to take pictures or video recordings of residents, both on the speaker podium and in the audience. In an email to the City Council on May 25, Westminster resident Jessica Lostaunau expressed their concern that “taking pictures of speakers during public comments can have a chilling effect on public participation.” Subsequently, at the most recent council meeting on July 12th, Vice Mayor NamQuan Nguyen was allegedly seen pulling out his cell phone to take a picture of a speaker before being called out by another resident. This raises ethical concerns about the motives of the Councilmembers and whether they plan to use those images as a form of intimidation against residents.
During a city council meeting on July 12, Councilmember Amy Phan West and Vice Mayor NamQuan Nguyen attempted to repeal Westminster Municipal Code Section 2.04.130 and Resolution No. 5076, passed in November 2021, which outlines proper interactions between council members and city staff. This section and resolution prevents the centralization of power among a few individuals on the council, as well as serving as a form of protection for the city, which has faced a multitude of lawsuits from past city staff that caused immense financial strain for the city prior to its passage at the end of 2021. By repealing this section and resolution, the boundaries and professionalism between city staff and council members will be blurred, as council members are able to impose their own political agenda and construe city goals to their self-interests, leaving room for the revival of a culture of intimidation and corruption at city hall.
It is by no coincidence that the proposed firing of the City Manager and the repeal of a section and resolution that protects the very foundation of integrity within the city governance is being challenged on the same day. The ulterior political motives of Councilmember Amy Phan West and Vice Mayor NamQuan loom over the chamber of City Hall, as they try to hide behind the veils of “respect,” “order,” and “safety.”
Amidst growing public dissent, the Westminster City Council must reevaluate its political agenda to prioritize accountability and transparency. The council must engage in an open dialogue with the community, providing clear justifications for their actions towards city staff and the general public. Furthermore, the council must implement measures to prevent such abuses of power in the future and to create a more inclusive decision-making process that values community input and transparency. If not for the unwavering activism of residents, activists, and organizers who did not tolerate the unhinged attempted dismissal of the City Manager on July 12, residents of the city of Westminster have been spared from the grasp of authoritarianism. But more needs to be done.
Lisa Nguyen is the Community Engagement Coordinator at VietRISE. They are a long-time resident of Westminster. They hold a M.A. in Applied Anthropology.
Vincent P. Tran is the Organizing Director at VietRISE. VietRISE is a community organization based in Little Saigon, Orange County that advances social justice and builds power with working-class Vietnamese and immigrant communities in Orange County. We build leadership and create systemic change through organizing, narrative change, cultural empowerment, and civic engagement.
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